U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr’s legacy lives on in the Ada area in many ways, none more important nationally than in the federal facility here bearing his name.

Thursday, June 8 that facility, the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Laboratory, celebrates its 40th year of doing what it does better than any other research center in the world, i.e., working to understand, protect and restore ground and surface water and ecosystems impacted by man-made and natural events. There will be a celebration ceremony in the morning for invited guests and an open house at 1:00 p.m. to which the public is invited.

“Legislation Sen. Kerr sponsored in 1961 helped set up water quality labs around the United States to focus on regional water quality problems,” said Stephen Schmelling, Ph.D., Kerr Research Lab director. “A group of citizens here became aware of this and worked with Sen. Kerr to ensure one of the labs got built in Ada.”

Schmelling said construction began in 1964 and in May 1966 the facility opened its doors for the first time. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed and the Ada facility fell under its auspices. Today Kerr Research Lab has a staff of 55 federal employees and another 80 – 85 contract personnel with an annual budget of $16 million, much of it in payroll, Schmelling said.

Schmelling said the federal staff consists of 40 scientific and technical personnel, and of this number, about 30 are Ph.Ds. “The rest have master’s degrees,” he said. The remaining federal employees provide support functions for the research program. The contractors provide janitorial, maintenance, computer network, security and analytical chemistry services.

The Ada lab is one of six research divisions of EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory and is part of the Agency’s Office of Research and Development. Ada’s lab concentrates its energies on researching different aspects of ground and surface water. Other EPA laboratories concern themselves with research on air pollution control, water and waste water treatment, and marine and estuarine problems.

“In the 1970s, contaminated groundwater began to be recognized as an important environmental problem,” Schmelling said. “Because of our lab’s expertise, we got a real boost in our mission. From 1980 to the present, research to clean up contaminated ground water has been something that this lab has been noted for. Much of what we do here has had a national impact. We’ve done good work here for 40 years. Our work is highly regarded.”

Schmelling said not all the work they perform happens inside the four walls of the building on Kerr Research Drive. “We go out to sites all around the country,” he said. Sometimes we drill wells and monitor what’s in the water, and collect soil cores and bring them back here to use in mini-environments to study environmental phenomena in a controlled situation. We test at the site, as well, and mesh data for both kinds of research,” he said.

Schmelling said the EPA has ten regional offices around the country whose mission is to enforce environmental regulations. “This is a daunting responsibility because they don’t necessarily have the expertise required. In general each site has its own unique characteristics. We’ve provided microbiologic expertise. We contribute research and development to provide the science needed for regulations. We also provide training courses,” he said.

“We have a technical support team that has provided a lot of help getting sites cleaned up and documented significant cost savings by showing less expensive ways to do it or by advising site managers not to do certain things. Our technical support program helps the EPA carry out its responsibilities more effectively and keeps our people informed about what’s going on in the real world so that we can focus our research on the most important problems,” Schmelling said.

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