EPA's Role in Domestic Preparedness

by Erica Canzler

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the anthrax attacks following shortly thereafter led to a significant expansion of the role played by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the prevention of, response to, and recovery from not only such attacks but also from natural disasters and other emergencies – especially chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) incidents. To meet this expanded mission, EPA developed additional expertise in the area of CBRN research, response, and remediation through creation of what has become the CBRN Consequence Management and Advisory Team (CMAT) and the National Homeland Security Research Center (NHSRC).

The focus of both CMAT and NHSRC is toentify and close existing gaps involving key high-consequence/low-likelihood CBRN incidents. CMAT leads EPA’s consequence management preparedness and response activities, which include environmental characterization, decontamination, clearance, and waste management efforts following CBRN incidents.

CMAT also is dedicated to providing 24/7 scientific and technical expertise to other agencies and organizations.  NHSRC’s scientists and engineers play a leading role in the development of innovative products and tools that result in numerous improvements in EPA’s overall ability to respond to all phases of CBRN consequence-management activities.

Specialized Radiological and Water Expertise EPA has several other highly specialized groups, including the Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT). RERT provides advice and assistance related to: sample collection and monitoring; lab analyses; decontamination; site cleanup operations; waste treatment, storage, and disposal; data assessment and management; and risk communications. EPA also manages the nationwide RadNet system, which monitors the nation’s air, drinking water, precipitation, and pasteurized milk on an ongoing basis to determine various baseline levels of radiation in the environment. RadNet has more than 120 stationary radiation air monitors in 48 states. Another 40 portable air monitors can be deployed anywhere within the country, as and when needed. The stationary monitors transmit near-real-time measurements of beta and gamma radiation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. RadNet has tracked radiation not only from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests but also from the 1986 Chernobyl (Ukraine) nuclear accident and the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/radiation disaster in the Fukushima area of Japan.

EPA’s Regional Water Teams maintain limited capabilities to support emergency response efforts involving drinking water and wastewater utilities. One such effort, for example, involves the deployment of technical specialists at the regional response coordination centers (RRCCs), Joint Field Offices (JFOs), state emergency operations centers (EOCs), and/or other coordination centers.

Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) EPA also is focusing greater attention on use of the remote sensing technology needed to detect and characterize radiological incidents. Remote sensing not only helps to minimize the potential harm to responding personnel but also optimizes use of the resources required to cope with such incidents.  EPA’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) program exemplifies the agency’s philosophy by using an airborne sensor suite, which can be deployed within one hour of notification, to provide near real-time chemical, radiological, and situational data. The ASPECT program’s standoff chemical and radiological detection capabilities, complemented by infrared and photographic imagery, can be made quickly available to assist local, national, and international agencies supporting the responses to hazardous-substance and/or radiological incidents.

ASPECT consists basically of a full suite of complex sensors and software, mounted in a twin-engine aircraft, and uses the principles of remote hazard detection to image, map,entify, and quantify a broad spectrum of chemical vapors and deposited radioisotopes. Airborne radiological measurements are conducted by using two fully integrated multi-crystal sodium iodide (NaI) and four fully integrated single-crystal lanthanum bromide (LaBr) gamma-ray spectrometers with a self-calibrating signal processor to generate a virtual detector output.  Radiological spectral data, GPS (global positioning system) position, and radar altitude are collected at one-second intervals at all times during a survey. All of the radiological data accumulated is processed automatically through the use of airborne algorithms.

After the collection is complete, a broad spectrum of useful radiological products – including total counts, a sigma map, and an exposure map – is generated from the data collected. Concurrent high-resolution aerial digital imagery (both visible and infrared) also is collected and all products are quickly loaded into a geographical information system (e.g., Google Earth, ESRI, etc.). The data developed, which are validated by EPA’s own “reachback” team, are typically ready for dissemination to the agency “customer” within about five minutes after collection.

Before, During & After – And for Many Years to Come On the research side of the agency, EPA’s NHSRC focuses special attention on radiological and nuclear remediation issues. The center is developing rapid methods for detecting radionuclides that require extensive chemical analysis, and focuses special attention on environmental matrices (soil, water, air filters), and the building of material matrices. The intent of using these highly advanced methods is to significantly shorten the time needed to characterize contamination after a wide-area radiological incident; additional methods for the decontamination of drinking-water infrastructure facilities are also being assessed.

In addition to these state-of-the-art (and beyond) programs, NHSRC is working: (a) to determine the usefulness of existing methodologies for waste minimization; and (b) to further develop other waste minimization processes – e.g., incineration, to significantly reduce the volume of waste contaminated with specific high-priority radionuclides (cesium-137).

Protecting public health and the environment before, during, and after a CBRN incident remains one of EPA’s primary goals – and almost assuredly will be for the foreseeable future. EPA continues to focus planning and research efforts on CBRN incidents that impact cities, transportation facilities, water systems, sports facilities, and large outdoor spaces. Moving forward, EPA will continue to seek new opportunities to partner with other federal agencies, the state/local/tribal counterparts of those agencies, private industry, and the nation’s universities. The continuing goal will be to leverage the cumulative knowledge and resources of each of those organizations in a multi-agency effort to address the nation’s overall CBRN capability gaps and to improve operational readiness at the national level.


For additional information on: RadNet, visit

ASPECT, visit

________________________ Erica Canzler is Director of the CBRN Consequence Management Advisory Team (CMAT) for EPA’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The mission of CMAT is to provide scientific and technical expertise for all phases of CBRN consequence management and to maintain a 24/7 field response component. Prior to working with CMAT, she was the Homeland Security Coordinator for OEM. She received a Master of Arts degree in Government/Homeland Security with a concentration in BioDefense from Johns Hopkins University, a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Lafayette College, and a Certificate in Field Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina.

Additional contributions for this article were made by Eileen Mayer. Eileen Mayer is a Communications Specialist for EPA’s Office of Emergency Management who manages the Office’s web communications and outreach efforts. In her 12 years with the EPA, Mayer also has served as a national expert leading the Toxics Release Inventory’s annual Public Data Release, and has held outreach and communications positions with EPA’s Asbestos and Small Business Ombudsman and the Office of Environmental Information.