Volpe Journal 30th Anniversary - A Special Edition
A modern transportation system provides many benefits for America and its citizens. Yet transportation infrastructure and operations can negatively affect our natural and human environments. Necessary system expansions or improvements cannot be achieved at the expense of personal health or natural resources. Balancing transportation goals with environmental protection presents a formidable and ongoing challenge. The Volpe Center has long supported the Department of Transportation in its efforts to develop and maintain the finest transportation system in the world, while limiting and preventing the impact to our environment. The Center has also actively supported other federal, state, and local agencies in their environmental work.
The progression of Volpe's environmental work over the years has mirrored society's growing awareness of the need to protect the natural world. When the Center was founded, environmental issues were just emerging into public focus, initiated in part by passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which established federal policy on protecting the environment. During the 1970s, attention centered primarily on responding to localized issues. With the passage of time and increased understanding, environmental concerns came to be regarded as national problems, and today reflect our sensitivity to global impacts.
Since NEPA was enacted, the federal government has enacted additional environmental legislation and regulation. The Volpe Center's activities have responded to these federal actions, beginning with supporting environmental initiatives of the DOT and expanding over time to include those of numerous federal agencies as well as state, regional, and local groups. The Center's work also reflects a strategic shift. Instead of reacting to problems, Volpe is proactively working not just to prevent environmental impacts through planning, policy, and exploration of alternative practices and technologies, but to enhance overall environmental quality through transportation initiatives.
Opening the Door on Environmental Actions
Urban noise and smog in the 1960s sparked Americans' awareness of environmental issues. Much of the Volpe Center's early environmental work related to addressing these problems. The Center created its Acoustics Facility in 1970 to develop a standard for airport noise modeling. Today, the facility performs noise-related work for several transportation modes, and its noise modeling tools are used in over a dozen countries.
The energy crisis also guided the Center's efforts in the 1970s. Volpe teams worked with federal agencies and the automotive industry to develop better fuel efficiency standards. Because energy use and the environment are intertwined, the Center's Motor Vehicle Goals Study analyzed potential air quality and other environmental impacts in developing the new standards.
Historical damage, such as the environmental devastation of the Love Canal site and later environmental incidents, strengthened Americans' desire in the 1980s for additional protections, and spurred the Volpe Center to expand into remediation work. The Center supports several federal agencies in these efforts, including asbestos removal for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and remediation of mining contaminants for the EPA.
The Center's systems approach and emphasis on knowledge-sharing allows for an agile response to emerging environmental challenges. For example, Volpe's experience in measuring noise levels in the national parks proved helpful when the Center later helped the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) assess the effects of hovercraft noise on fish and wildlife in Bethel, Alaska. The Center continues to perform risk assessments of noise levels to develop effective remediation plans in a variety of transportation settings.
From Repairing Environmental Damage to Preventing Problems
Airline and motor carrier deregulation in the 1980s led to increased impacts on air quality, and the Volpe Center continues to work in this area. These efforts expanded after Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990. By creating more stringent air quality standards, the legislation spawned new environmental activities for the Center, including examining the ability of urban areas to comply with the new requirements. The Center's Air Quality Facility, sponsored by the FAA in 1999, is currently working to improve analysis of air quality at airports.
As government took a more proactive approach to environmental issues, environmental analysis began to play a role in transportation projects. Passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 mandated comprehensive consideration of environmental issues when planning transportation projects. The Volpe Center has conducted many project-related environmental reviews, and is also supporting recent DOT efforts to streamline the environmental review process. Streamlining will speed implementation of transportation projects needed to serve the public and business community, while ensuring that they are environmentally responsive.
ISTEA also led to expanded exploration of alternative transportation systems and fuels. The Volpe Center has provided technical and planning support to the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) Maglev Deployment Program. It is also working to support development of Intelligent Transportation Systems, and is studying how they can enhance air quality.
Going Global for Our Future
In the last decade, the localized, "not-in-my-backyard" attitude that arose in the 1980s has softened. The entire world is now seen as "our backyard," and there is a broader shared concern to protect the sustainability of the global environment and its resources.
As it has since its inception, the Volpe Center has adapted to the expanded cultural perspective on environmental issues. The Center supports DOT's Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting, which serves as a clearinghouse for research and policy coordination related to transportation and global climate change. It also supports DOT's Advanced Vehicle Program to encourage development of "green" bus and rail transit. Keeping in step with the global approach, the Volpe Center assists other countries in developing national plans to address climate change.
America depends on a safe, efficient transportation system. At the same time, it takes pride in the quality of its natural environment. The Volpe Center will continue to support efforts to effectively achieve both priorities, while expanding its work to reflect growing recognition of the need to protect and enhance the fragile health of our planet.
The following pages present examples of our environmental work.
Addressing Environmental Problems
Transporting Mail in Alaska: Does Hovercraft Noise Affect Fish and Wildlife?
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has embarked on a multi-year program in which a hovercraft is used to transport mail to villages in the vicinity of Bethel, Alaska. The Volpe Center assisted the USPS in conducting a comprehensive study of hovercraft noise to assess the underwater effects of this noise on fish and wildlife. In January 2000, Volpe staff members visited Bethel to perform noise measurements of the hovercraft and to study Alaska blackfish behavior in response to its passage. In addition to conventional acoustic instrumentation, the Volpe team used hydrophones to measure underwater noise levels. Specialized video equipment was also used to monitor blackfish behavior. Volpe Center staff also interviewed local fisherman to obtain day-to-day information. Volpe Center staff took part in many town meetings where villagers were able to voice their opinions. The analysis revealed that hovercraft had little impact on local wildlife populations, and that subsistence harvesting by local villagers was not adversely affected.
Supersonic Aircraft: How Their Impact Was Measured
The Concorde's high speeds create sonic booms. The Volpe Center coordinated a monumental effort to measure the effects of these sonic booms on the upper atmosphere.
When supersonic aircraft, which typically fly higher and faster than conventional aircraft, started being seriously considered for military and commercial use in the 1950s and 1960s, critical questions were raised regarding the environmental impact of aircraft fuel emissions. The Climatic Impact Assessment Program was organized in 1971 to provide an assessment, by 1974, of the effects of perturbations of the upper atmosphere caused by supersonic aircraft. In conjunction with other federal agencies, the Volpe Center assisted in coordinating and assimilating data on this issue. The task of determining these effects was a monumental one, incorporating scientific disciplines from basic physics and chemistry to weather forecasting and medical and agricultural sciences. Several government agencies contributed information from their own research, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, EPA, and the Department of the Interior. The findings of this study were presented at the Volpe Center in February and November 1972.
Still Cleaning Up after World War II: Bucks Harbor, Maine
In the mid-1990s, the FAA discovered a host of contamination issues at the Bucks Harbor Radar Facility in Maine, as many of the site's World War II-era buildings contained asbestos insulation, lead paint, mercury electrical switches, and electrical transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Unidentified waste drums littered the site, and diesel fuel and solvents had leaked into the soil, posing a threat to the public drinking-water supply. The Volpe Center assisted the FAA by providing site assessment, remediation design, project management, and field oversight for the complex cleanup effort, all under the auspices of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Volpe staff coordinated the excavation and disposal of 24,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, and the removal or stabilization of several buildings.
Underground Storage Tanks: Removing Hidden Sources of Contamination
During 1998, Volpe staff designed and managed the removal and cleanup of 68 underground storage tanks from various locations across the country. These particular tanks ranged in size from 500 to 50,000 gallons in volume, and were located at service stations, airfields, military installations, and industrial parks. Many of the tanks contained gasoline, diesel fuel, solvents, and other hydrocarbons. Older underground storage tanks can develop leaks, and when the stored liquid escapes, may contaminate water supplies. Recent EPA regulations require that all tanks be equipped with features that provide protection against leaks, spills, overfilling, and corrosion. The Volpe Center helped the FAA and the Western Area Power Administration meet a December 1998 deadline set by the EPA, by conducting site investigations, providing design services, and managing tank removals and replacements.
Lead and Arsenic Poison the Soil of Stockton, Utah
Soil contaminated with lead and arsenic from old ore smelters being cleaned up in Stockton, Utah.
The Volpe Center implemented new technology to clean up contaminated soil in the town of Stockton, Utah. A bustling mining town over 100 years ago, Stockton has only recently recovered from the effects of the silver ore smelters and the residual lead and arsenic by-products found in the soil. When the EPA determined that the presence of lead and arsenic in the town's soil posed a serious threat to the health of the residents, the Agency contacted the Volpe Center to conduct a multi-million dollar emergency response action to remediate the most contaminated areas in town. Volpe staff engineers as well as engineering and construction firms assisted the EPA in removing over 40,000 tons of contaminated soil. Because the transport and disposal of contaminated soil is expensive, the Volpe Center implemented new technology to decontaminate on-site, thereby saving the EPA over a half million dollars.
Older underground storage tanks can develop leaks, and when the stored liquid escapes, may contaminate water supplies.
Zebra Mussels Threaten Biodiversity: Effects of Invasive Aquatic Species
A number of aquatic species such as fish, mollusks, shrimp, algae, and microorganisms travel to the United States in the ballast water of international cargo ships, and are discharged into domestic waterways, where they multiply and choke out native species. Two of the hardest hit areas are the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay. For example, the zebra mussel, which has its original home in the Caspian Sea, first spread to Lake St. Clair and then spread to the Great Lakes, where the one-inch striped mollusks are crowding out native mussels and clams. The Volpe Center helped the U.S. Coast Guard assess the extent of the problem and evaluate technologies that attack the organisms while the water is still on board ship as ballast.
Libby, Montana: Residents Exposed to Asbestos
Vermiculite was mined near Libby, Montana, for decades until 1990. When asbestos exposure resulting from mining, processing, and transporting vermiculite was linked to almost 200 deaths in the Libby area since 1961, the EPA asked the Volpe Center to undertake an immediate assessment of ongoing exposure risks. The Center's team was on site in Libby within two days of the request, testing and analyzing samples from residences, schools, former mines, and other locations. Samples showed the presence of tremolite asbestos, a rare form of asbestos that appears in mined vermiculite.
Tremolite fibers can be dispersed in the air and inhaled, and airborne fibers of tremolite were found at some residences. Asbestos was also found in soil samples. The EPA manages the medical assessment phase of the project, while Volpe continues to provide sampling, site assessment, and analytical support.
Preventing Environmental Problems
Environmental Impact Statements Guide Projects
The Volpe Center has received much publicity for its work in remedial actions, but preventing environmental problems from occurring in the first place is its foremost concern. Work on Environmental Assessments (EA) and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) has guided the development of many "green" transportation projects, for example the FRA/Amtrak Northeast Corridor Improvement Project. By placing an emphasis on the planning process, the Volpe Center works to ensure that potential impacts are mitigated, and that the principles of "environmental justice" are served by not placing a disproportionate share of environmental harm on low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Since 1998, the Center has provided environmental, system-safety, and planning support to FRA's Maglev Deployment Program, whose goal is construction of a magnetic levitation (maglev) public transportation link. Volpe completed the Maglev Final Programmatic EIS, which addresses potential impacts on the human and natural environment and suggests possible measures to mitigate any adverse impacts.
Throughout the United States, vacant industrial or commercial buildings and lots lie unused, made worthless by real or perceived environmental contamination. Investors and developers do not want to assume liability for the cleanup of these "brownfields," and invest instead in pristine sites. The neglected properties are thus left to create health and safety risks as well as degrade the value of surrounding communities.
An EPA brownfields site in Lowell, Massachusetts, where contaminants are being cleaned up to ready the site for redevelopment.
The Volpe Center is helping EPA's Region 1 implement its Brownfields Initiative, which promotes the cleanup and sustainable redevelopment of unused properties in Lowell and Hardwick, Massachusetts. The goal of the assessments is to determine the extent of pollution, potential cleanup strategies, and the cost to ready the sites for redevelopment. Both sites are contaminated by leaking storage tanks and hazardous materials. The assessments will identify the types and concentrations of contaminants, and the areas to be cleaned.
Transportation's Impact on Global Warming
Global warming has become a major concern for transportation policymakers worldwide as fossil fuel consumption grows. The fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in many countries is fossil fuel use for transportation. It is estimated that over the next century, the average global temperature could rise by as much as 3.6 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit as a result of the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. The Volpe Center has taken a proactive approach to finding solutions to the predicament, by helping developing countries assess their technological options and by evaluating market-based emissions strategies.
The Volpe Center has worked with countries such as Egypt and Argentina to improve their ability to understand and mitigate transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. The Center provided Egyptian authorities with technical information regarding transit vehicle efficiency, full fuel-cycle emissions for compressed natural gas, infrastructure for gaseous fuels, and potential fuel costs. This information has helped Egypt make practical decisions for an effective greenhouse gas mitigation plan.
After meeting with Volpe Center staff in 1999, Argentine officials expressed an interest in hydrogen and compressed natural gas for transportation uses. Volpe Center staff provided detailed guidance regarding the use of these fuels, as well as information about the potential benefits of hybrid electric propulsion.
The Volpe Center has also played an important role in helping to advance market-based approaches to minimizing the cost of reducing greenhouse gas buildup. For example, in 1999, the Volpe Center brought together a range of transportation stakeholders at a seminar on greenhouse gas emissions trading.
Noise in our National Parks
The Volpe team collected field data about aircraft noise in the Grand Canyon as part of a larger effort to reduce aircraft noise in our national parks.
The FAA and National Park Service (NPS) first came together to measure aircraft activity and noise levels in the 1980s when the NPS responded to growing public concern about excessive aircraft noise over the Grand Canyon National Park. In 1997, Congress passed the National Parks Overflights Act, designed as preventive legislation to impose restrictions at the parks most seriously affected, and to promote quieter aircraft technology and set minimum altitudes. In 2000, Congress passed the Air Tour Management Act, establishing a public process for the management of commercial air tour operators at 50 parks. Volpe Center environmental and acoustics experts are providing the technical leadership needed to develop air tour management plans that will result in no significant impact on park resources.
The Air We Breathe
Transportation is a major source of air pollution, which in turn damages the environment and has adverse effects on human health. In the 1960s, scientists, environmentalists, and the public became aware that vehicle exhaust fumes play a major role in the deterioration of air quality in urban areas. Los Angeles and Houston, for example, had disturbingly high levels of carbon dioxide from emissions generated by automobile traffic, creating higher amounts of ground level ozone, a major component of smog. This prompted widespread state and federal regulatory activity, eventually resulting in the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which sets limits on how much of a pollutant is allowed in the air anywhere in the United States. Since passage of this act, the Volpe Center has been developing innovative strategies to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide and particulate matter released by automobiles.
A prototype alternative fuel vehicle.
Air quality has improved over the last 20 years, but many challenges remain. Working in conjunction with the DOT and the Center for Climate Change, the Volpe Center is helping to create comprehensive and multimodal approaches to reducing transportation-related pollution and mitigating the effects of climate changes. Some of the Center's work involves providing information and training for metropolitan and regional planners attempting to meet the air quality requirements of the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21). The Volpe Center has also worked with the Department of Energy to develop the Clean Cities Initiative, which supports public/private partnerships to deploy alternative fuel vehicles in our cities. Each of these efforts forms part of the bigger picture that will ameliorate the effects of transportation pollution and improve the quality of life of U.S. citizens.