AFCEC team earns DoD environmental restoration award

Members of the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, environmental restoration team pose for a group photo May 22, 2018.

Members of the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, environmental restoration team pose for a group photo May 22, 2018. The team, part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s installation support section on the base, earned the environmental restoration award for installations in the 2018 Secretary of Defense Environmental Awards program. From left, team members include Daniel Garcia, Amena Atta, Walter Scherer, Jeff Holston and Kathleen Gerber. Team member Chris Kelim in not pictured. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – An aggressive commitment to innovative, green and sustainable remediation techniques at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, earned an Air Force Civil Engineer Center team top honors in the 2018 Secretary of Defense Environmental Awards program recently.

The AFCEC installation support section on Vandenberg took home the environmental restoration award for installations.

“It’s not a single-person effort. We have a team managing the program, stakeholders helping (us) move forward, and contractors contributing to our success,” said Kathleen Gerber, environmental restoration program lead for the ISS.

The environmental restoration team focuses on cleaning up soil and groundwater contamination attributed to the space and missile launch mission at the base – particularly during the Cold War era. At nearly 100,000 acres, Vandenberg, which is located in western Santa Barbara County, includes some of the highest quality coastal habitat in central California.

“We live in a beautiful area,” Gerber said.

Home to many invaluable cultural and ecological treasures, the base is recognized by regulators and the public for protecting and preserving 42 miles of pristine coastline, 9,000 acres of sand dunes, 5,000 acres of wetlands, more than 1,600 prehistoric archaeological resources, 14 rock art sites, a National Historic Landmark, five Native American village sites, a National Historic Trail, 26 Cold War-era complexes and 17 endangered or threatened species, according to the Department of Defense.

In the mid-1980s, approximately 1,800 contaminated sites were identified on Vandenberg, including former launch sites, storage tanks, landfills, inactive bombing ranges, inactive artillery and armor training areas, and waste disposal pits.
The AFCEC team works closely with state regulators to restore those environmental liabilities and, more importantly, keep the mission going.

The Air Force is making steady progress toward reaching cleanup goals, Gerber explained.

“We want to ensure that we return the properties back to the base unencumbered to facilitate the mission,” Gerber said.

“We have fewer than 110 sites remaining,” added project manager Jeff Holston.

Several accomplishments and projects helped the AFCEC team stand out among nominations from across the Department of Defense.

Through collaborative efforts and innovative approaches, the team manages the Air Force’s largest performance-based restoration contract, valued at $125 million over a 10-year span to address 107 sites. Only four years into the contract, the team has accelerated various aspects of the program, closing 44 sites ahead of schedule and positioning for on-time or accelerated closure at an additional 55 sites.

“Our team has been successful in large part due to maintaining team consistency and remaining flexible as investigations unfold,” explained Amena Atta, a project manager with over 25 years with the restoration program at Vandenberg.

Additionally, the team leveraged unique methodologies to achieve site closure based on risk, applying a fresh human-health risk assessment approach to total petroleum hydrocarbon evaluation. This approach achieved site closeouts for dozens of sites with contamination as high as 230,000 parts per million.

They also used a programmatic statistical comparison of passive sampling data to historical data, working through key requirements and implementing the transition in just nine months with full stakeholder concurrence. This approach yielded high-quality data and achieved an overall cost reduction of 20 percent.

“We have the technology to clean stuff up more efficiently and at less cost. Ultimately, it helps our environment and reduces cost so it’s definitely a win-win,” said Walter Scherer, a project manager with the restoration team, adding that personal motivations drive him to find the most effective cleanup solution.

“I’d like to give over the cleanest environment to my daughter,” he said.

“Preservation and restoration of vital natural resources such as groundwater is of the utmost importance,” Atta added.

Additionally, the team’s dedication and ingenuity kept people safe during the California wildfires. When a massive wildfire spread to unexploded ordnance risk areas on the base in 2016, a geographic information system, or GIS, developed for the military munitions response program kept firefighters out of harm’s way.

“We had a 12,000-acre wildfire – very high risk with high winds blowing and unexploded ordnance over half the area – that was extremely challenging for the firefighters. By having GIS data in a format and location where weapons safety had full access, the team was able to use (the data) in real time to ensure firefighter safety,” explained Daniel Garcia, a project manager.

For Garcia, earning the installation restoration award is a testament to a strong program and a strong team working together for many years to achieve a common goal of cleaning the environment.

“This restoration program has been around a long time. For us, the award culminates decades of hard work and strong relationships between the team, regulators and contractors,” he said.

The Secretary of Defense Environmental Awards honor individuals, teams, and installations for their outstanding achievements and innovative environmental practices. For more information about the awards program, visit http://www.denix.osd.mil/awards/home/.