Environmental Engineering Alumnus Receives Flemming Award for Contributions to Water Infrastructure Decontamination

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: June 19, 2018

UC environmental engineering alumnus Jeff Szabo, PhD, received the Arthur S. Flemming Award for his water infrastructure decontamination work at the EPA. 

Water Security Test Bed with pipes extending across desert landscape.

The Water Security Test Bed, located approximately 50 miles east of Idaho Falls, Idaho, is a full-scale water systems model that researchers use to test treatment processes.

Szabo headshot

Environmental engineer Jeff Szabo received the Arthur S. Flemming Award for for his water infrastructure decontamination work.

When water flows from your faucet, you probably don’t think how that water safely gets to your home. But if that water were to suddenly become a biohazard, your lifestyle would immediately change. Researchers at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) work to prevent and mitigate that situation.

“Water is one of those things like electricity or your car – you just take for granted that it’s available, clean and safe to drink,” says University of Cincinnati (UC) alumnus and EPA environmental engineer Jeff Szabo, PhD. “But contamination issues happen all the time.”

Szabo recently received the prestigious Arthur S. Flemming Award for his role in water infrastructure decontamination. The Flemming Award recognizes outstanding federal government employees for their commitment to public service.

Szabo has worked for the EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center since 2005. He currently conducts water infrastructure decontamination research at the EPA’s Test and Evaluation Facility in Cincinnati but also makes several trips a year to Idaho, where he applies his research to a full-scale water systems model, the Water Security Test Bed. There, Szabo and other researchers test how the water sector can respond to chemical, biological and radiological incidents (both intentional and unintentional), so that people can access safe drinking water, even in times of crisis.

Before working for the EPA or on the Water Security Test Bed, Szabo completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at UC, conducting EPA-funded research that addressed homeland security-related issues with drinking water and wastewater systems.

“During my graduate studies, there wasn’t much known about what you could do if contaminants got into a water supply,” says Szabo. “I started doing work on a very small scale, simulating different types of pipe material and testing different ways to remove contaminants from these systems.”

inside of a rusted corroded pipe.

EPA researchers test different treatment processes on corroded pipes like this one.

Eventually, the EPA and its collaborators in the water sector wished to apply this work to a larger scale. Since researchers obviously can’t poison real water supplies, the EPA saw a need to build their own testing system. That’s how the Water Security Test Bed got started.

The Water Security Test Bed, which is funded through a collaboration between the EPA and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), sits about 50 miles east of Idaho Falls. The Test Bed site was once a small test site that hosted nuclear reactors. The reactors and buildings had long been abandoned or demolished by the time the EPA and INL arrived, but the water infrastructure was still intact. The existing infrastructure and remote location made the site an ideal location for a large-scale water test bed.

In addition to housing a full-scale water system, the Test Bed has smaller household appliances like dishwashers, laundry machines and water dispensers, so researchers can test how contaminated and decontaminated water is delivered directly to consumers.

Szabo and the researchers at the Water Security Test Bed are primarily concerned with testing treatment processes for three types of contaminants: Bacillus anthracis, the dangerous bacterium that causes anthrax; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are found in household products and firefighter foams; and petroleum products.

Researchers simulate a full-scale contamination with one of these substances (for Bacillus anthracis, the team uses a non-pathogenic surrogate) at the Water Security Test Bed and then apply various treatment processes to note their effectiveness. These treatment processes include flushing water at high pressures, applying disinfectants and physically scouring the pipes. When drinking supplies all over the country face similar contaminations, Szabo can use these test results to make recommendations for handling real crises.

Szabo sees a real need for the practical application of water treatment processes. “Water is so vital to everything going on,” he says. “Formulating solutions to ensure that everyone has safe, clean drinking water is a rewarding way to give back to the public.”

In an age when algae blooms, oil leaks and chemical spills regularly make headlines, Szabo and the EPA’s research offer insights that lead to effective crisis management strategies.

aerial view of Water Security Test Bed.

Jeff Szabo and other researchers test how the water sector can respond to chemical, biological and radiological incidents at the Water Security Test Bed.