HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise (EM CX) has undergone multiple name changes and restructurings over the last three decades, but its mission to provide environmental remediation expertise for military installations worldwide has remained the same.
The EM CX, part of the USACE Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, recently completed a rigorous recertification process, earning the USACE “expert” designation for another five years.
A Mandatory Center of Expertise (MCX) is a USACE organization that has demonstrated a unique and exceptional technical capability in a highly specialized area that is critical to other USACE commands. To maintain MCX designation, organizations must recertify every five years by proving their skill and cost-effectiveness.
The Corps of Engineers first established the CX in 1991 to provide centralized technical quality assurance in support of the Department of Defense’s Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP) for active installations and the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) Program. These programs are responsible for protecting human health and the environment by investigating and, if needed, cleaning up potential contamination or munitions left behind following military testing or training exercises.
At that time, the CX was named the Radioactive and Mixed Waste Center of Expertise, but it was renamed the Hazardous, Toxic, and Radioactive Waste Center of Expertise just a year later.
During these early years, the CX recruited dozens of highly qualified experts, many of whom continue to grace the hallways and offices of the CX’s main office in Omaha, Nebraska. As the sole providers of technical quality assurance on challenging, often tedious projects that span decades, the expertise and experience of long-time employees is an invaluable asset.
One of these is Dave Becker, geologist, who already had eight years of experience in environmental clean-up with the Corps of Engineers when he joined the CX in 1991. He continues to provide quality assurance support for one of the first projects he was assigned as a summer intern.
“In 1985, I was assigned a project in Phoenix, a Formerly Used Defense Site, and I’m still working on that project almost 40 years later with the anticipation that it will be several more decades until this is cleaned up,” Becker said. “The groundwater contamination goes for miles and involves tremendous volumes of water.”
Becker, who is also a part-time professor at The University of Nebraska in Omaha, said he compares the process to “cleaning latex paint out of a paintbrush” when explaining it to his students.
“Just like the paint sticks to the bristles in the brush, the contaminants stick to the rocks and other things in the ground,” he said. “You have to use a lot of water to flush it out, and it’s a very long process.”
Kate Peterson, chief of the Environmental Management and Cost Division, joined the CX in 1994. She and her team support USACE districts by helping them create their programming and budgeting estimates for clean-up projects at FUDS sites, a process that’s improved tremendously as they’ve gained experience over the years, she said.
“When we first started, environmental work was all new, so how do you estimate it?” Peterson said. “But now, we have historical data from the last three decades to help us establish better estimates, which leads to better planning and, ultimately, better performance.”
In 2007, the Hazardous, Toxic and Radioactive Waste CX merged with the Military Munitions Center of Expertise (MM CX) in Huntsville, Alabama, and expanded its environmental clean-up mission to include the safe removal of unexploded munitions (UXO) from former defense sites. This realignment resulted in the CX’s current name, the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise.
John Sikes, chief of the Military Munitions Division of the CX, has been with USACE for 28 years beginning with the MM CX in 1994. He said he’s seen tremendous improvement in technology and processes since that time.
“We’ve come a long way from old analog-type geophysics instruments, basically standard metal detectors that would let us know that something might be there, so we’d have to dig up every single anomaly,” Sikes said. “Now, we use digital geophysics devices where we can get a better picture of what’s underground, compare it to a database of munitions images, and confirm that it’s unexploded ordnance before wasting time and resources to dig it up.”
The remediation process for UXO has also evolved, improving the way we approach investigations of sites, he said.
“These investigations allow us to make better decisions -- technically, scientifically and legally,” Sikes said. “We’re now working better with environmental regulators and communicating with various groups all focused on the same end goal of making the public safe from UXO.”
The EM CX is currently led by John Nebelsick, who has over 30 years of experience working with military munitions and hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste projects. He credited his team of experts with the success of the EM CX over the years.
“Our team is very well educated – many of the staff have advanced degrees or certifications -- and focused on the mission and finding solutions,” Nebelsick said. “I’m really proud of how diverse of a work group we have and how we’ve been able to solve every problem that’s been thrown our way.”
Following its recent recertification, the EM CX is revising its engineer regulation, which provides roles, responsibilities, guidance and structure of the Center. The revised document will be published by the end of the fiscal year.
For more information about the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise, visit https://www.hnc.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental-and-Munitions/.