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RTI Stories

From Uranium to Air Quality: RTI and the Environment

"We wanted to understand what residents value most about the region"

Changing the environment for the better is a constant, slow struggle, and the outcome is never clear—as demonstrated by a few of the projects RTI has pursued in the current decade.

In 2011, to gauge the potential economic and environmental impact of a proposed mine and mill at Coles Hill in Virginia—perhaps the richest undeveloped deposit of uranium in the United States—RTI contracted with the Danville Regional Foundation to undertake a comprehensive socioeconomic evaluation. A team of environmental scientists, engineers, risk assessors, and economic- development analysts studied the potential impacts of uranium extraction, ranging from the effect on local businesses to the environmental results of different mining, milling and waste-management technologies.

“We wanted to understand what residents value most about the region, what they believe are the most significant challenges, and what their concerns and questions are about the mill,” said project director Katherine Heller at the time. “This project will provide area decision makers and residents with scientifically sound information about the potential direct and indirect impacts of the mine and mill.” RTI’s final report was submitted in December 2011; the ultimate fate of Coles Hill is still being decided in court.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency faced an aggressive deadline to review 4.3 million public comments on its Clean Power Plan, which aims to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. RTI helped the EPA process those comments, and understand and evaluate issues important to the public, by deploying RTI-CHARM (Comment Handling and Response Manager), a tool developed by the institute’s environmental experts.

RTI-CHARM allowed the EPA to store, manage, and prepare summaries from more than 24,000 letters within four months after the close of the comment period. The tool sorted the stream of comments according to a diverse array of issues, including state goal computation, state plan development, carbon capture and storage, and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into actionable information. Thanks to RTI’s work, the EPA was able to put the final rule into effect within nine months of the close of the public comment period—remarkably fast, considering the volume of comments received and the precedent-setting nature of the rule itself.

In 1977, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which includes a provision to remedy visual impairment to Class 1 National Park and Wilderness areas (e.g., those parks larger than 5,000 or 6,000 square miles). To implement that legislation, the National Park Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiated a program called Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE).

For three decades, RTI has supported IMPROVE by measuring concentrations of airborne particles—either naturally occurring or produced by man-made sources—that inhibit visibility at parks throughout the United States. As monitoring technology has improved in the current decade, along with knowledge of compounds like secondary organic aerosols, RTI researchers have maintained the utmost quality and consistency in data collection needed to accurately depict trends and changes occurring in a national park across years, or even decades.