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EPA Post Awaits Tulane Professor

November 24, 2002

Lynn Rice, <i>Hullabaloo</i> Staff Writer

hullabaloo.main@tulane.org

Laura Steinberg, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tulane, has been appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board by EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitmann.

The SAB, a federal advisory committee that was established in 1978 by the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act, is composed of an eclectic group of scientists, engineers and economists (unaffiliated with the U.S. government) considered experts in their respective fields.

The board provides credible peer review, advising the EPA and Congress on technical matters that relate to environmental public policy. The board, for instance, played a key role in October 2001 shortly after President George Bush came into office.

The Bush administration hoped to keep the arsenic standard for drinking water at 50 parts per billion, fearing that lowering the standard would be detrimental to the economy. The water board, however, became involved, and collectively determined that public health was endangered by arsenic standards at the then current level, and proposed a reduction to 10 ppb. This proposition was carried out, and the EPA has since been funding efforts to develop more cost effective techniques for reducing arsenic levels in the water.

Of the Science Advisory Board's role, Steinberg said, "The EPA has its professionals, and theyre excellent and they know what they're doing, but some of the issues that they work on are controversial, and they want to be certain that they are aware of the latest science behind them going into the regulatory and policy decisions that they make. The board, which can convene at their request, provides a forum for this."

Traditionally, the board was composed of five separate committees: the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Ecological Processes and Effects Committee, the Environmental Engineering Committee, the Environmental Health Committee and the Radiation Advisory Committee. In the past few years the board has expanded to include five new committees: The Integrated Human Exposure Committee, the Research Strategies Advisory Committee, the Drinking Water Committee, the Compliance Analysis Council and the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee.

Dr. Steinberg has been appointed to the Drinking Water Committee. Her board will meet two or three times a year at various locations around the United States. She will serve on this board until 2004. Steinberg has a long list of credentials that make her a qualified choice for this prestigious position. A native of West Orange, N.J., she received her Bachelors degree in Civil and Urban Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

As a child, she aspired to be a city planner, but in her course of studies in civil engineering, she developed an interest in environmental engineering which, at the time, was a subset of civil engineering. She subsequently took a position with Louise Berg Inc, an international engineering consulting company, where she designed wastewater treatment plants and performed environmental impact assessments.

After four years with the company, Steinberg attended Duke University, where she received her masters degree in science and her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering. She conducted her masters thesis on fractal patterns observed in solids removal drying beds, and for her Ph.D, she created mathematical models to measure the natural decay of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, in the Hudson River.

Since her arrival at Tulane University, Steinberg has focused her work in three primary areas of interest. The first is the diffusion of environmental technology and technological innovation. This field examines how recently developed technologies become integrated into practical use. For instance, a technique has been developed to disinfect wastewater using ultraviolet light as opposed to the standard slurry method.

Only a small minority of wastewater treatment plants employ this new method. Steinberg studies parallels between and differences of the plants in an attempt to discover what characterizes the innovators while others are resistant to change. Steinberg's second major field of interest is statistical modeling and risk assessment work pertaining to water quality and air quality. Finally, Steinberg concerns herself with the environmental impacts of natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes in industrialized areas.

Most factories are not adequately protected against natural disasters and emit potentially hazardous pollutants when systems spring a leak and are left unattended. She studies areas that have experienced natural hazards in order to better understand the effects of the disasters. A year ago she traveled to Turkey to examine a heavily industrialized area that had been ravaged by earthquakes.

Of the emergency situations, Steinberg said, "When a technological disaster (a release of chemicals) is triggered by a natural disaster, it's very hard to respond, because you have two simultaneous events. Normally, when a leak springs, plants can go in with their personnel and fix it, but in this case, there is a big earthquake. The personnel went home to take care of their families, and the roads are impassible. A plants response to joint disasters is considerably different."

Steinberg is also a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. For the past six years, she has served on the National Water Policy Committee. This committee provides direction to ASCE's lobbyists with regards to which water policies should be promoted. This organization aims to promote civil engineering in society and in policy making. This past October, Steinberg was appointed to chair the ASCE's policy committee on the environment.

As part of this committee, she created a policy statement concerning Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, a deficiency of oxygen in the Gulf caused by industry and commerce, reducing the quality of this ecosystem. Steinberg's statement supports funding for programs that study and attempt to reduce the hypoxia.

Next year, Steinberg hopes to take a sabbatical and travel to Ispras, Italy to work in a collaborative research facility supported by the European commission and the UN. There has been a substantial amount of flooding in Europe, raising public concern about their vulnerability and initiating preventative action, assessments that are right up Steinberg's alley.

With regards to the SAB, Dr. Steinberg currently has no specific goals. She hopes to advance the interest of the ASCE and, of course, the environment. For more information about the SAB, visit www.epa.gov/sab, or contact Dr. Steinberg at lauras@tulane.edu. Dr. Steinberg will remain in New Orleans through the end of the school year.

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