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At 40, EPA’s Wheeling Office Still Leads the Way

Release Date: 11/10/2003
Contact Information: Bonnie Smith, 215-814-5543

Bonnie Smith, 215-814-5543

PHILADELPHIA - EPA’s Wheeling, W. Va. field office is a microcosm of its much larger offspring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Wheeling office – created in 1963 and celebrating its 40th anniversary this year – shares many of the responsibilities of the national EPA – air monitoring, clean water, good science, hazardous cleanup, mining impacts and enforcement.

“Wheeling is one of the places where environmental protection began in this country. It is a distinct honor to mark the office’s 40th anniversary, and to honor the men and women who showed us the way,” said Donald S. Welsh, EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional administrator.

On Nov. 13, Welsh will lead a ceremony commemorating the anniversary at 10 a.m. at the Schrader Environmental Center at Oglebay Park, Wheeling. Senior managers of all EPA divisions, as well as environmental officials from West Virginia and Pennsylvania departments of environmental protection, will participate.

The program will include dedication of the Ray George Memorial Walkway at the Henry Stifel Schrader Environmental Center. George died this year after a lifetime preserving the environment, and exemplifies the excellence and spirit of the Wheeling office. He brokered an innovative $2 million settlement in a Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. pollution case, sheltered it through the company’s 1985 bankruptcy, and delivered $4 million (including interest) to pay for “green building” features at the Schrader environmental education center.

EPA’s Wheeling field office houses one of the nation’s premier freshwater biology laboratories, studying the health and living conditions of fisheries, bugs, plants and all that lives in rivers, streams and lakes.

The history of the Wheeling lab is the history of the EPA, emerging from a smog that killed 20 people in Donora, Pa. in 1948 and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969, and making vast improvements in the nation’s air water and land.

During the 1950s, the U. S. Public Health Service collected extensive data on declining fish populations in the Ohio River and its tributaries, and concluded that there was a serious human health threat from rivers full of untreated sewage and the toxic brew of castoff factory chemicals.

“Rivers and streams in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio were so polluted that the water could not be made safe to drink. State laws varied widely. Mines in Pennsylvania were required to treat wastewater so the discharge would be clean. West Virginia mines routinely pumped out water the color of orange juice,” recalled Gary Bryant, a charter member of EPA since its founding in 1970. Bryant was chief of the Wheeling office until he retired this year.

U. S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was instrumental in forming the Ohio River Basin Project and, in 1963, the Wheeling field office opened to evaluate water quality across 72,000 square miles in six states in the upper Ohio valley.

In 1966, the Wheeling office was assigned added responsibility under the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to determine and protect water usage and to oversee water storage needs in reservoirs.

In the late 1960s, the Wheeling field office recorded the most acidic rain ever recorded in the United States.

With the formation of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the Wheeling field office emphasized inspections and enforcement, and was instrumental in EPA’s early charge to help local government and industry comply with new laws governing air and water pollution. Since its inception, the Wheeling office also has led the collection and analysis of data about acid mine drainage, and has a reputation as a center of excellence in that field.

The glory of the Wheeling lab is environmental science – particularly evaluating freshwater benthic (microorganism) and fish populations and the health of the water they inhabit. The lab consistently is on the leading edge of freshwater biology work.

Last year, Wheeling office scientists James Green and Margaret Passmore received the agency’s regional science achievement award for surveying West Virginia streams and aquatic organisms affected by mountaintop mining. The Wheeling lab might be the only freshwater lab in the country that could manage this massive biological assessment.

Green is one of the four remaining charter members who has worked in the Wheeling office since EPA’s first year (1970-71). The other three are Lynne Bailey, William Gersting and Jack Downie.

Wheeling serves as a forward post for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic office, housing scientists, hazardous cleanup managers, inspectors and criminal investigators.

The field office promotes close coordination with state environmental officials in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. It serves as a rapid response base for Superfund cleanups, oil spills and chemical leaks. Wheeling staff also investigate environmental crimes, support abatement of asbestos and lead, oversee control of industrial chemicals, and distribute federal funds for water purification and sewage treatment.

The commemorative ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 13 in Oglebay Park is open to the public. Further information is available from Debbie Storch at 304-234-0235.