Army Corps environmental pioneer Zebrowski retires

Huntsville Center Public Affairs
Published June 4, 2019
Lt. Col. Hugh Darville, Huntsville Center commander, presents Sandi Zebrowski with a token of appreciation during a retirement ceremony at Huntsville Center in May. Zebrowski served as the director of the Center's Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise since 2008.

Lt. Col. Hugh Darville, Huntsville Center commander, presents Sandi Zebrowski with a token of appreciation during a retirement ceremony at Huntsville Center in May. Zebrowski served as the director of the Center's Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise since 2008.

As the nation’s environmental engineer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages one of the largest federal missions. 

For the last 27 years, a civil engineer dedicated her career to focus on efforts that ensure the Corps provides totally integrated, sustainable environmental practices.

As the director of the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville’s Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise, Sandi Zebrowski led more than 60 Corps employees in providing high quality engineering and scientific support to environmental remediation, munitions response and compliance programs around the world.

Zebrowski retired from federal service June 3, 2019.

Chip Marin, Huntsville Center programs director, said Zebrowski’s dedication to her craft is spotlighted by her personal courage.

“She (Zebrowski) has the most personal courage of any department of the army civilian I’ve ever encountered,” Marin said  “It didn’t matter the situation, or the task—if it isn’t done right and done to Army policy in accordance with law and policy statute, Sandy wouldn’t do it. Doing the right thing takes personal courage.”

For Zebrowski, doing the things right was imperative, especially when working environmental compliance issues.

However, Zebrowski didn’t take a straight path to the career that made her so valuable to the Corps.

Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, Zebrowski always knew she wanted to be an engineer.

Her father was an engineer. She excelled at math and science. After graduating high school, she studied civil engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Zebrowski wanted to build bridges.

Or so she thought.

Between her sophomore and junior year of college, Zebrowski worked the summer the roads department at her hometown. She was looking forward to gaining experience and doing practical civil engineering work for Toms River, the county seat of Ocean County, New Jersey.

She soon found reviewing and designing road improvements wasn’t the job she thought it would be.

“I sat behind a drafting table and I was bored to tears,” Zebrowski recalls.

She finished her summer job in New Jersey and returned to Blacksburg to continue her studies, all the while doubting her choice of vocation.

“I knew I had the brains for being an engineer, but I just didn’t know if I could spend a career designing bridges,” she said.

Still, Zebrowski pursued her degree through the academic year.  Then in the summer of 1981, she interned for the Navy’s Chesapeake Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command ensuring environmental regulations compliance at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C.

There she oversaw the base’s hazardous waste program and asbestos removal projects when she realized environmental work was more gratifying than designing roads.

“I was outside visiting worksites and taking samples and logging data,” she said.

“I really enjoyed the work and I felt I was making a real difference keeping people safe and the environment clean. The Love Canal disaster (a Niagara Falls, New York-planned community built on a chemical dump) had been a major story of national interest while I was in college,.” She said.

“It was a wakeup call to the nation.”

Zebrowski had found her calling.

In 1982 she graduated from VT with a Bachelors of Science degree in civil engineering with a sub-discipline in environmental engineering. She was hired out of college by Headquarters, Naval Sea Systems Command in Crystal City, Virginia, and continued working environmental projects for the Navy.

“It was such an exciting time for me to be fresh out of college and working all these (environmental) issues for the Navy and learning my way around a (career) field that was addressing concerns that were just then coming to the attention of the its senior officers,” she said.

Although the modern environmental movement began in the 1950s and 1960s with rising concern over air and water pollution, establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t occur until a 1970 executive order stood up the agency, charged with maintaining and enforcing national standards under a variety of environmental laws. A little more than a decade after its formation, the EPA was still in its formative state.

By the time Zebrowski had established her Navy career, environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were followed by the enactment of a series of laws regulating waste (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), toxic substances (Toxic Substances Control Act), and the clean-up of polluted sites (Superfund) that included military installations throughout the U.S.

 “When I graduated from VT, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (public law creating framework for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste) had been in place for only six years,” Zebrowski said.

 “There were a lot of regulations and standards coming down to all levels of the Department of Defense and its service branches,” she said. “A lot of engineers didn’t know exactly how to meet compliance or implement programs, so the timing was right for me to step up and learn the processes.”

To keep up with the changes and hone her knowledge and skills, Zebrowski went back to VTU and in 1986 she received her master’s degree and became a Professional Engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was there too that she met her future husband.

In 1987, Zebrowski and her husband moved to Omaha, Nebraska where he had accepted a position as a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska. She soon accepted a position working for Omaha District managing cleanup sites at Shaw and Myrtle Beach Air Force Bases in South Carolina and the EPA Superfund site Ninth Ave. Dump, a former chemical and industrial waste disposal site in Gary, Indiana.

In July 1988, Zebrowski accepted an offer with the Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River Division Hazardous, Toxic and Radioactive Waste Center of Expertise (HTRW CX) as program manager for contracts developed by Omaha District for the Corps’ Rapid Response and Preplaced Remedial Action.

“It took two years to get the program running and I had to learn all the different aspects of contracting,” she said.

The contracts were innovative for the time; cost plus award fee and fixed fee in the same contracts for a total capacity of $450 million enabled the Corps to respond to environmental issues worldwide within 48 hours, Zebrowski said.

Once those contracts were up and running, Zebrowski returned to work environmental compliance with USACE construction office. It was there that she began a USACE-wide program training construction representatives to properly sign hazardous waste manifests.

Since 1991, there have been 79 course sessions offered, training more than 1,700 employees.

 Zebrowski said she might be most proud of her work developing Proponent-Sponsored Engineer Corps Training (PROSPECT) courses through the USACE Learning Center.

In 1995, she became supervisor of the Environmental Cost, Compliance & Technology Branch within the HTRW CX. Working with her staff, she developed PROSPECT environmental training programs, countless compliance guidance documents and provided regulatory compliance technical assistance to military and civil engineering and Corps operations and construction offices nationwide.

By 2007, the HTRW CX had more than 40 employees — most with advanced degrees— conducting quality assurance for all Corps environmental sites and ensuring compliance with environmental law.

“A major accomplishment was our award of $450 million in fixed-price contracts, which the districts used to execute work,” Zebrowski said.

While the districts actually performed the work, the HTRW CX provided necessary expertise to develop Corps environmental policy, review project documentation for consistency with national standards, train district personnel on environmental issues, and provide guidance and technical support on Corps projects.

However, Zebrowski said the HTRW CX had faced long-running difficulties in that many districts – including the Omaha District – treated it as a local, rather than a national resource.

In the mid-2000s, HQUSACE sought to improve synergies with the HTRW CX and Military Munitions CX by creating an umbrella organization under the authority of the Huntsville Center.

In November 2007, HTRW CX joined the Huntsville Center, merging with the Center’s Military and Munitions CX to form the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise.

Since its employees had strong ties to the Omaha community, Huntsville Center’s commander at the time, Col. Larry McCallister, chose not to relocate the center’s personnel to Huntsville. Employees assigned to the HTRW CX transferred to the Huntsville Center on paper, but remained in Omaha. He also selected Zebrowski as the new director of the combined organization in 2008.

“We owed him a lot because he was really driven at making the arrangement work,” Zebrowski said. “For a commander to bring 50 people that are remote into their command is quite a challenge and probably a little scary as to whether that’s going to work or not. He demonstrated such wonderful leadership and I think it was really important to us at that time.”

The EM CX of the late 2000s comprised approximately 70 staff members with expertise in environmental compliance, cost engineering, geo-environmental and process engineering, chemistry, geophysics, geology, toxicology, environmental health and safety, munitions safety, health physics, explosive safety, risk management and communications, environmental law, and contracting.

By 2016, Zebrowski was directing five EM CX divisions: Environmental Management and Cost, Environmental Regulatory Compliance, Environmental Engineering and Geology, Environmental Sciences, and Military Munitions.

“We weren’t an execution organization; we were a mandatory center of expertise whose primary missions focused on quality assurance, BRAC support, technical support, guidance development, training, and programmatic support to Corps offices worldwide,” Zebrowski said.

A major responsibility of the EM CX was quality assurance of environmental and munitions sites.

The EM CX conducted quality assurance reviews, environmental lab audits and data reviews, regulatory compliance audits, munitions safety submission reviews, field oversight and troubleshooting, accident investigations, and review of all Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP) explosive and chemical safety submissions.

Zebrowski is quick to point out that although the EM CX had become one of Huntsville Center’s largest business lines in the center, the EM CX mission was different from the other directorates.

The technical expertise of her staff allowed her to focus a lot of her time to continue developing and instructing PROSPECT courses to the benefit all levels of the Corps and the Department of Defense, she said.

Since 2008, The EM CX developed and taught 11 different PROSPECT courses with multiple sessions each year for a combined total of 170 courses and more than 3,296 students trained. It also conducted 29 initial Hazardous Waste Initial Manifesting courses for 543 students and 71 Hazardous Waste Manifesting Recertification courses for 1,120 students.

In addition, the EM CX developed an Environmental Training Course for the Army National Guard and a FUDS Training Program.

The FUDS program included up to 52 different classroom or webinar courses and training was increasingly available online, helping the EM CX to ensure the Corps’ districts had the technical resources and trained personnel they needed to execute their environmental missions.

Zebrowski said over her career, the greatest changes she saw were due to the growth and use of the Internet in the federal government.

“It helped us provide online training and helped us streamline our efforts,” Zebrowski said. “Our webinar courses made it easier for the folks in the field to get the training and support they needed to do their jobs more effectively.”

The internet not only helped ensure a trained and knowledgeable workforce, it also ensured federal employees all had the same direction.

“Before the Internet, not everybody working environmental regulatory issues had the same guidance. But once the most recent documents we were uploaded and available almost immediately, we were all on the same page,” she said.

As Zebrowski continued her career through the last decade as EM CX director, she managed a highly skilled and technical work force of engineers, many with doctorate-level degrees.   

Boyce Ross, Huntsville Center’s engineering director, said over the years he became well aware personally of her leadership style.

“Very few people have the appreciation of what it takes to maintain that level of subject matter expertise that the entire Corps of Engineers can draw from,” Ross said.

“She’s hired PhDs, researchers and people in the scientific field and they are so valuable to the Corps. There is an art to maintaining that level of technical competence and she did an outstanding job doing that.”

After retirement, Zebrowski said she is plans to relax and enjoy life playing, golf, tennis, pickle ball, painting and learning to play the piano.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career, but now it’s time for some me time.”