By: Ms. Karen Baker, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Programs Chief
Over the course of the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of championing our environmental mission alongside the highly-skilled and capable workforce within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). As I transition from serving as the Environmental Programs Chief at Headquarters to the Regional Programs Manager at North Atlantic Division, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to give a shout-out to our USACE-wide environmental team and the value-added results they continue to deliver.
One of the greatest strengths I have observed while serving as Environmental Programs Chief is our ability to embrace emerging issues as an opportunity. These unplanned initiatives have occupied a significant amount of our environmental team’s time and added to already heavy workloads. Still, our team never wavered in providing engineering solutions to our military partners and our non-Department of Defense customers.
Whether it was conducting visual inspections of military housing for environmental hazards or providing technical support to our Air Force and Army partners in addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), we answered the call– because that is what we do. We provide solutions to the toughest environmental challenges. It is what we are known for and why we are asked to support so many initiatives.
Over the course of the past five years, I have seen our environmental program continue to grow and mature. I would like to highlight some of the achievements I have seen first-hand, as well as reflect on how we are positioned moving forward. First, let’s start with some of the accomplishments within our programs:
* Integrating innovative technologies into remediation activities *
There is tremendous value in the partnerships we have developed through the years with federal, state and local organizations, industry, and academia. It is through these partnerships and engagements that we are able to embrace innovative solutions and sync up the technology we need with the capabilities of industry. One such innovation is advanced geophysical classification (AGC).
Utilization of AGC at formerly used defense sites (FUDS) reduces the overall time and cost of remediation activities by enabling project teams to identify items buried under the ground to a greater level of specificity. The Department of Defense initiated the AGC accreditation process in April 2016, and as of March 2019, 12 firms have been accredited. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been a DoD leader in utilizing accredited firms at 26 of our FUDS Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP) cleanup projects.
* Leveraging the value of partnerships and collaboration *
We continue to leverage the strength and knowledge of academia through our Environmental Advisory Board. The Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) was created as a means for the Chief of Engineers to gain outside, expert and independent advice on environmental issues facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although the EAB will transition into a sub-committee of the Army Science Board at the end of this fiscal year, we will continue to utilize this board to build partnerships, understanding, and cooperation with the environmental community, and public at large as we work to address complex environmental issues.
We also continue to engage with state and regional decision makers through the Army Regional Environmental and Energy Offices (REEOs). Our REEOs monitor emerging issues and trends at state and regional levels, serving as the “eyes and ears” for the Army and DoD. They continue to support our districts and divisions in establishing relationships across the country, serving as a force multiplier through their engagements in environmental and energy initiatives that may affect military training, testing and readiness.
We need to continue to leverage and incorporate scientific, economic and social knowledge in all that we do. This is accomplished through our continued engagements with federal, state and local organizations, academia, and industry. It is through this active dialogue with industry that we communicate what our needs are to successfully execute our programs.
Additionally, it is through this active dialogue that we will continue to enhance our capabilities through innovation and collaboration with our federal partners. I am especially proud of the reinvigorated partnership we have forged with the Department of Energy’s Legacy Management Program. Our ongoing collaboration, sharing of lessons learned and comprehensive planning enhanced our delivery of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), while at the same time served as an entryway into other mission areas where our specialized expertise was needed at DOE. Last year, we signed a new Memorandum of Understanding that is already having an impact across the enterprise.
* Fostering sustainability as a way of life *
This past March, we celebrated the completion of the decommissioning and dismantling of the historic STURGIS vessel under our Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program (DNPPP). What makes this project truly noteworthy is not only did we successfully decommission and break down the world’s first former floating nuclear power plant, but we also recycled a significant amount of materials as a result. As part of the radiological decommissioning, we safely removed and shipped more than 1.5 million pounds of radioactive waste and recycled more than 600,000 pounds of lead. As part of the subsequent shipbreaking, an estimated 5,800 tons of steel and other assorted metal from the ship were recycled.
This is just one example of how we are fostering sustainability as a way of life within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Often when we talk about sustainability, we hear discussions of “balance” or “trade-offs” between mission, environment, and economic benefits. However, I have witnessed first-hand the Corps’ transition from all red on its first Sustainability Scorecard in fiscal 2010 to mostly green in fiscal 2017. We moved from the lowest ranking agency in the government on its energy intensity scores to the current federal leader. This is huge. We are truly leveraging the concept of sustainability and not making decisions based on this “OR” that, but on this “AND” that, with respect to the environment and the mission.
* Aligning guiding principles with mission completion *
When it comes to the mission, we are always focused on completion, and in 2016, we turned this focus into a vision for our Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program. We called the vision: “Response Complete in Our Lifetime.” To accomplish this vision, we also adopted a new set of guiding principles for the FUDS program that focused on bringing our projects over the finish line.
Within my Headquarters team, and among the divisions and districts supporting our military programs environmental work, we recognize we can also achieve many of our other installation remediation goals “in our lifetime,” as we continue to draw down the list of sites on active installations and return acres of land back into use for training or other military activities.
* Maximizing the breadth of skills and knowledge within our environmental cadre *
The strength of our reputation is built upon our talented workforce, the quality of service we deliver, and the breadth of technical expertise we possess in-house. This is the result of our focus on professional development and expertise.
While serving as the environmental representative on CP-18 Career Program Planning Board (CPPB) for the U.S. Army, it was my responsibility to help develop and communicate opportunities within the career program. Over the past several years, the Army Environmental Community of Practice has been building the career maps for the Environmental Engineer (0819), Environmental Protection Specialist (0028) and the Natural Resources Manager (0400) series. These career maps serve as a guide to see what skills, experiences, and education our environmental professionals should be seeking to advance their careers and are readily available on Army Career Tracker (ACT).
Our highly-skilled professionals not only support our environmental cleanup programs across the country, but overseas as well. Our environmental teammates deploy all over the world as part of the Environmental Support Team (EnvST), providing environmental support to combatant commands during war, contingency operations, and disaster relief operations. Not to mention our environmental experts have been on-the-ground in support of disaster response and recovery efforts prompted by the hurricanes and wildfires over the past few years.
So, where do we go from here? The answer is simple. We continue to move forward. Some of the key resources that we leveraged during my tenure will continue to set the pace for the way ahead:
* Living by our Environmental Operating Principles *
Our environmental mission touches the lives of nearly every American and our team understands that every one of our projects and mission lines has an impact on the environment, the economy, and the well-being of the communities we serve. We will continue to march forward in these vital efforts by embracing our Environmental Operating Principles (EOPs). The EOPs reinforce our role in, and responsibility for, sustainable use, stewardship, and restoration of natural resources and we will continue to incorporate them into all that we do, across all mission areas.
* Embracing NEPA as a mission enabler *
Sustainable practices and environmental stewardship can be a mission enabler. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is consistent and aligned with our EOPs and when done well can enhance the effectiveness and outcomes of our project delivery. We are changing the paradigm and encouraging our team to think of NEPA as a tool that helps us to identify and mitigate risk — not just to the environment — but to the cost and schedule of a project.
* Harnessing the strength of our Environmental Community of Practice *
The role of our Environmental Community of Practice (ECOP) is to cut across all the different lanes our environmental mission crosses into throughout the Corps and bridge this gap. The ECOP serves as a steering committee where our senior leaders at Headquarters come together to discuss environmental-related activities across the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, identify who is in the lead, and how the rest of our collective team can support. It removes the stovepipes often created within our different mission areas. Through this forum, we are able to leverage the full capacity of our technical competencies across the enterprise.
Across the enterprise, we celebrate our environmental accomplishments on Earth Day, which is celebrated on April 22. The Army’s theme for Earth Day this year is “Sustaining the environment to secure the mission.”
The one thing that has evolved– and that I try to stress every day– is that we now recognize environmental considerations can also be an enabler. It is about ensuring Soldiers and other service members have the air, water, land they need to train; It is about cleaning sites to a level that allows us to revitalize and develop infrastructure; It is recognizing that protecting an ecosystem may have economic benefits; and it is about learning how to use natural approaches as we continue to build infrastructure the nation needs.
Our workload and technical competencies continue to evolve and adapt in response to the needs of our customers and our nation. As we continue to evolve, the value proposition of our environmental program is known and is strong with our partners and we will continue to build off this in shaping our future. I have confidence in our environmental experts to lead this charge, and in doing so, continuing our efforts to sustain the environment and secure the mission moving forward.
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