CAC Summer Interns Visit the EPA’s Research Triangle Park Campus

Jul 17, 2019

by Kelby Welsh, Robert Wear, and Emma Frantz

Earlier this month we took a field trip to the EPA’s Research Triangle Park campus. It was a hot July day the kind of day that makes you feel as if your skin is melting, and if you stand outside for too long you’ll be reduced to a small puddle atop the smooth dark asphalt. Still, it was nice to get out for a change of pace from our everyday workspace.

The drive was short but stunning. Nestled behind a blanket of trees, you would never know that the largest facility ever built by the EPA was right there. As we arrived we were greeted by a gorgeous view of the lake separating the EPA buildings from those of the National Institute of Environmental Health. The EPA’s RTP campus covers nearly 1.2 million square feet and houses 15 offices, including their main office for air pollution research. The day’s intense heat suddenly seemed timely for a tour of a major center of environmental and climate policy. 

Kelly Witter welcomed us with a brief overview of their facility and the tour she had lined up for us. Kelly has worked as an environmental engineer in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development since 1987. It was great to have someone with so much knowledge and experience guiding our tour, providing interesting tidbits here and there that she has picked up over time. 

We began our day with a sustainability tour with Matt Pait, a mechanical engineer. Matt presented several of the EPA’s ongoing projects to make their RTP campus more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. One such project was noticeable just by walking down some of the building’s hallways, which have windows covered by a grid of small black dots. This grid makes the windows visible to birds, preventing bird-window collisions.

Other leading components of the green effort include pollution prevention and improved Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, the campus features roof-top solar panels that currently supply about 3% of the campus’s energy. The building also houses several species of plants native to North Carolina that can remove pollutants from the indoor air. The EPA aims to integrate these and other projects with the Agency’s mission to construct a “green” campus. 

The second half of the tour focused on some of the air and climate research performed at the RTP campus. We met with Jim Jetter, an environmental engineer in the EPA’s National Risk Management Research Division, to learn about his research into cookstoves. His team measures the air pollution emitted by inefficient cookstoves such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter, both known to cause detrimental health and climate effects. 

From there we toured the Large-Scale Dynamometer lab. Dr. Tom Long, a physical scientist in the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, explained that the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL) leads in the development of laboratory-based testing methods to assess advanced vehicle technology in support of EPA’s transportation sector initiatives.

Finally Dr. Worth Calfee, a microbiologist for the EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center, gave us a guided tour of the COMMANDER lab. This lab conducts research to advance decontamination, sampling, and analytical approaches following biological terror incidents an EPA division that not many people even know exists. 

After a long day marveling at the technology and innovative machinery, we felt not only impressed but inspired. It was exciting to learn about the research the EPA is actively pursuing; even as environmental interns, we had been unaware of the full scope of this research. As policy and law students, it was eye-opening to see all the behind-the-scenes action that lays the foundation for the regulatory work that we are studying. We hope to carry this knowledge with us as we enter the workforce and continue to develop our environmental expertise.