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New EPA Collaboration Awards
Honoring the Uncommon Practice of a Common Theory

Leanne Nurse

A critical element for any effective collaboration program includes recognizing and rewarding outstanding work. This article reviews some lessons learned from winners of EPA’s new national Collaboration Award. For the first time in more than ten years, EPA considered adding a new award to its national lineup.  The development of this award, which took place over more than two years, highlights the increasing importance of collaboration in meeting environmental goals.

Spring Valley – Back Yard Mustard Gas
Some people may envision collaboration as political insiders conducting secret negotiations behind closed doors.  Steve Hirsch takes collaboration very personally.  EPA’s new national Collaboration Award honors Steve, a remedial project manager in EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, and how he went above and beyond the call of duty. 

Spring Valley.  Mustard gas, Lewisite, arsenic.  Hidden stashes of chemicals buried who-knew-where on the fence line between a major university and some of Washington, DC’s highest priced properties.  This is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Steve pulled elegantly simple solutions out of air thick with fear and acrimony using a variety of collaborative methods.

Hirsh’s work shows how collaborative methods can increase the effectiveness of organizations like EPA:


Further analysis and evaluation by both theorists and practitioners may uncover additional ways to increase effectiveness.

Route 66 – Reviving “America’s Main Street”

By the time the Rolling Stones sang Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” this western road had served as a beacon of fast-moving freedom for more than three generations of drivers.  Eventually, a four-lane highway replaced Route 66.  The original road’s troubled legacy – abandoned gas stations, leaking underground storage tanks (LUSTs)and the shells of old motels – dimmed the former luster of small towns along the way. 

EPA’s new, national Collaboration Award honors a team from EPA’s western regional office.  These collaborative cleanup experts invested more than two years to meet the long-standing challenges of Route 66 communities.

The team initially targeted LUSTs in places which had once boomed with new traffic, tourists and businesses.  They went on to convene many different community, government and business stakeholders and helped find ways to revitalize several of the small towns along what was once “America’s Main Street.”  These are some of the lessons about collaboration we can learn from the Route 66 team:


By establishing this new award, EPA continues its leadership in collaborative problem solving and innovative public involvement work.  The editors also thank the honorees for their assistance in developing this article.  The official narratives for both the individual and team collaboration awards follow:

Steve  Hirsh

Complex collaboration is an understatement that describes the relationship that Senior RPM Steve Hirsh forges between EPA, other governmental agencies, and, most importantly, the public in addressing the complex and typically massive clean-up operations at federal sites, including those listed on the National Priorities List.  No one has proven to be more skillful at managing this politically-charged task than Steve, who in the past 20 years of working on those cleanups requiring EPA oversight has illustrated that only through close collaboration and methodological steps to consensus building could all the stakeholders (federal, state, community members) involved reach cleanup and reuse solutions while avoiding time and resource-consuming, politically charged disputes with other governmental agencies, the military and the public. 

Steve is the Remedial Project Manager overseeing the clean-up at the Spring Valley Formerly Used Defense Site in the Washington, DC area.  This site encompasses over 650 acres where 1,400 highly priced private homes and commercial properties, the South Korean embassy and several others, American University, and Wesley Seminary reside.  Arsenic contaminated soils, buried chemical munitions, chemical warfare debris, potentially extensive groundwater contamination and high political interest makes this one of the largest and most complex sites in the nation.  When Steve took over the site, the public’s mistrust of the Army was so severe it had become the primary obstacle in the clean-up effort’s progress.

Nothing better illustrates Steve’s commitment and skill in applying a collaborative approach to cleanup than one of Steve’s colleagues working on the cleanup of the site. According to Mr. Gary Schilling, Army Corps of Engineers, “The job turned around when Steve came on board.”  This, it is compelling to note, is a common sentiment at many of the sites at which Steve works with others while representing EPA.

Upon being assigned Spring Valley, Steve immediately focused first on building the public’s trust.  Despite the size and complexity of the site, Steve took the time to reach out to each and every individual who was worried that the contamination had affected their health. 

In what is just one case among many that illustrate his skill and sensitivity in building trust, Steve met with a resident concerned about the health of his seven-year-old son.  When Steve learned that the son’s pet mouse died mysteriously, he had a veterinarian from the University of Pennsylvania meet with the family and perform an autopsy and hair analysis to determine if there was arsenic contamination in the house.  His actions not only reassured the family that they were safe, but more importantly, they demonstrated to the community that EPA was serious about its commitment to do everything possible to protect them. 

According to members of the Army Corps of Engineers and other team members on the cleanup, Steve’s concurrence on the clean-up efforts is now like a safety blanket to the community, saying, “if Steve at the EPA says it’s okay, then it’s okay.” 

Once Steve addressed the lack of trust that had plagued Spring Valley in recent history, time and resources were then able to be dedicated to addressing the site’s numerous environmental issues. Working with the Army Corps, Steve has skillfully encouraged a holistic approach to minimizing the impact of environmental issues on the community.  He has done so by exploring alternative, less invasive clean-up options for the residents. 

For example, when he learned that residents at the Spring Valley site were at risk of losing their beautiful, centuries-old trees that contributed to the neighborhood’s historic grandeur, he worked closely with his Army Corps partners to apply an innovative technique to cleanup. 

With the blessing of local citizens, the cleanup team planted a special species of fern that has been proven to remove arsenic in the soil through their root system to clean up the contamination while avoiding having to destroy the trees around which the contamination is present. Not only did this action save dozens of irreplaceable trees, but they again demonstrated that he- and EPA- believe that through collaboration and innovation, the preservation of the character of neighborhood could be a tool in - and not a hindrance to - protecting human health.  His ability to think ‘out of the box’ once again exemplified how this Senior Project Manager is a steward of the environmental in the true sense of this term.

Steve’s attention to detail is complemented by his ability to keep the big picture at the forefront of his decisions.  When Steve first came to Spring Valley, he realized that by law, the Army’s focus is confined to the contamination at the Spring Valley site.  However, experience at other federal munitions sites led him to believe that there should be a wider concern for potential perchlorate contamination in the ground water.  Perchlorate is dangerous even in small amounts, particularly for children.  He believed that the District’s drinking water supply could be at risk so he proactively moved to convince the stakeholders as well as the Region’s Water Protection Division that groundwater sampling and sampling of the Potomac was a necessity, despite the lack of any legal responsibility to do so

Again, his environmental stewardship, coupled with a fine-tuned ability to keep all parties working together to achieve a common goal, ensured that through further testing, perchlorate was indeed detected in the groundwater, the Potomac River and at low levels in the drinking water.  The District currently is investigating its impact on their water supply system.  Steve’s work at Spring Valley is perhaps best summarized by Jim Jones, Deputy District Engineer of the Baltimore COE, “his honest and direct approach has been a major factor in developing trust with the Spring Valley community and the Partnership. And while he serves as an active collaborative partner he also provides leadership in an environment of complex and politically sensitive challenges.

Steve Hirsh personifies what people expect in the form of a dedicated, professional public servant”.  Steve applies this vision at all of his sites.  He was instrumental in creating a step-by-step formalized partnering process that has led to a streamlined process for removing obstacles, resolving disagreements and dividing resources among the Air Force and state and county governments at the lowest possible management level.  By formally applying this new process he has been able to forge a strong collaborative relationship, which ultimately resulted in the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement by all parties. 

Steve’s leadership in this process at this site has, according to the Air Force, saved $36M in additional clean-up costs.  This is a feat almost unheard of at complex military sites such as Andrews Air Force Base.  His efforts in working closely with the Air Force and local government at the Andrews Air Force Base Superfund are now a national model for clean-up efforts at federal and military sites on the National Priorities List.
The results of Steve's work spirit, his drive to succeed and belief in collaborative processes have spread throughout the program and R3 and are reflected in the dramatically increased number of signed and implemented remedies; enforcement agreements at almost every R3 federal site, and countless savings in resources and dollars by avoiding formal dispute resolution… not to mention how his methodology in reaching consensus is now considered the nationally endorsed business practice at such cleanups.

Route 66 Team

The Route 66 Team demonstrated outstanding leadership, initiative, and commitment to collaboration in the development of the new and unique Route 66 Partnership.  In its first year, the Partnership effectively utilized support from EPA Region 9, Headquarters, and several state, local and federal partners to assist small communities on Route 66 in Arizona to clean up and assess leaking underground storage tank (LUST) and abandoned tank sites.  Furthermore, the partnership helped these communities explore opportunities to redevelop and/or historically preserve sites that have been addressed and are now ready for reuse.  As a result of the Route 66 Team’s efforts, the communities involved in the project have taken the initiative to employ tools and resources highlighted by the Route 66 Partnership to turn environmental challenges into success stories.  In addition, thanks to extensive outreach, other regions and states have developed similar programs based on Region 9’s successful model, tools, and resources developed. 

For years, leaking underground storage tank sites and abandoned gas stations on Route 66 have posed environmental and economic challenges for communities, especially small and rural towns.  During Route 66’s heyday (1926 to 1970), the economies of these towns swelled with business from Route 66 travelers, and new gas stations opened to meet increasing fuel needs.  Unfortunately, leaks and spills from underground storage tanks at these gas stations resulted in soil, water, and groundwater pollution.  After larger, four-lane interstates replaced Route 66, these communities faced economic struggles as businesses—especially gas stations—went out of business.  Today, these small and rural towns must deal not only with environmental problems from past and recent leaking and abandoned tanks, but also with slow economies and abandoned sites—an unfortunate recipe for brownfields.

Since October 2005, the Route 66 Team has worked to establish a new and innovative collaboration dedicated to helping these communities solve environmental and economic problems.  To help these communities address contamination from LUSTs and abandoned tanks, the Route 66 Team initiated a partnership with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).  Previously, ADEQ launched a state program called the Route 66 Initiative to help Route 66 communities conduct LUST site assessments and cleanups.  In the past year, the Route 66 Team has helped the state advertise and propel this program, especially in the Route 66 Partnership’s target area, which includes Winslow, Joseph City, and Holbrook.  Since the beginning of the partnership, 22 LUST sites (22% of open sites) have been successfully closed.  In the past year, ADEQ has also doubled the number of abandoned UST sites addressed under another, similar program—the Municipal Tank Closure Program (MTCP).  Most of the 35 sites addressed by the MTCP are concentrated in the Route 66 Partnership’s target area.

To help these communities with brownfields redevelopment—one step beyond assessment and cleanup—the Route 66 Team worked with ADEQ and local communities to expand existing programs and pursue partnerships with other agencies and organizations.  First, the team influenced ADEQ to consider redevelopment and preservation opportunities from the beginning of the project to the end, rather than focusing solely on the cleanup at hand.  This approach, while entirely new for ADEQ’s Tanks Division, has effectively engaged the state agency and the local communities in post-cleanup development planning. 

The Route 66 Team also worked with ADEQ and local governments to identify stakeholders and partners with resources and tools to contribute to the effort.  In less than a year, the team successfully attracted partners from approximately 20 local, state, and federal agencies and organizations, including the National Park Service, Small Business Administration, AZ Department of Transportation, AZ Department of Commerce, Route 66 Association of AZ, and others.  In sum, these programs offer millions of dollars in potential funding (grants and loans) for activities related to brownfields cleanup, redevelopment, and historic preservation. 

In January 2006, the Route 66 Team organized a two-day kickoff meeting to share information about these available resources and to discuss the challenges, options, and possible next steps for the project.  Over 60 people attended, creating a network of stakeholders that included agency representatives, private industry, local press, business owners, bankers, community members, and UST and LUST site owners.  Not only did the meeting provide a venue for information sharing, it also illustrated the number and range of participating agencies and partners.  After decades of struggling with environmental and economic challenges, these small and rural communities could finally see that others—including state and federal government agencies—were ready and willing to work with them to find solutions.

Following the Kickoff Meeting, the Route 66 Team collaborated with partners to assemble information in a recently published report, The Route 66 Partnership: Exploring Cleanup and Redevelopment Opportunities https://epa.gov/region09/waste/brown/66/route-66-partnership-report.pdf.  The report identifies barriers and opportunities for redevelopment, highlights ADEQ’s Route 66 Initiative, and provides lessons learned and recommendations.  Even more importantly, the report contains tables of tools and resources for stakeholders to use for cleanup, redevelopment, and historic preservation related activities. 

The Route 66 Team continues to deliver presentations to EPA and non-EPA audiences to raise visibility for the Route 66 Partnership and to promote similar projects in other EPA Regions and states.  To date, Regions 6 and 7 have proposed similar projects focused on LUST sites and abandoned gas stations on other portions of Route 66.  In Region 8, the Colorado Brownfields Foundation is working with various state agencies to launch a Scenic Byways Initiative based on the Route 66 model.

In the first year of the Route 66 Partnership, the Route 66 Team focused specifically on providing Route 66 communities with tools and resources that would enable them to tackle their own environmental challenges.  Since the Kickoff Meeting, the cities of Winslow and Holbrook have taken the initiative to apply for grants offered by Route 66 partners.  In March, Holbrook secured a grant from the AZ Department of Commerce to conduct a business inventory along Route 66.  In June, Winslow received a grant for $96,600 from ADEQ to conduct an environmental cleanup at the “Standin’ on the Corner” monument (also located on Route 66).  Partnership efforts are leading to both environmental improvements and economic development.

For their leadership, innovation, commitment, and perseverance in collaborating with numerous partners to help these Route 66 communities and promote environmental protection and public health, EPA Region 9 nominated the Route 66 Team for the Award for Outstanding Leadership in Collaborative Problem Solving.

[Editor’s Note:  The Collaboration award evolved from Region 10’s December 2003 suggestion that the Public Involvement Team consider their proposal to develop a national process based on the Region’s Susan M. Handley Citizen/Community Action Award that was established in September 2003.]

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