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For years, responding to environmental emergencies has been a top priority on military installations, but the unique mission of Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head and its proximity to pristine local waters makes it especially important for the Navy's environmental professionals to stand the watch.

Those professionals, part of Naval Facilities Command Washington (NAVFACWASH) Environmental Program, have a new oil skimmer in their arsenal that will help them limit any negative environmental impacts resulting from the unique national security mission of supported commands on board NSF Indian Head.

The Navy's mandate is clear; to "protect human health and the environment, spills of harmful substances must be prevented and controlled."

As an entity that stores more than one million gallons of petroleum near a environmentally-sensitive areas, the Environmental Protection Agency requires the Navy to have an environmental response plan in place on board NSF Indian Head.

David Hartnett, environmental protection specialist for NAVFACWASH, explained how the new oil skimmer increases the ability of his organization to respond to the pollution threat posed by any fuel spill.

"Skimmers are part of the equipment needed to remove the petroleum if it reaches the water," he said. "They are used in conjunction with the Oil Recovery unit as well as the Recovery Boom which is towed by the Emergency Response Boats. All the Equipment is maintained by NSF Indian Head Environmental [Program] and NDW Fire Department."

The new oil skimmer replaces an older skimmer that was hampered by poor suction and frequent clogs, according to NSF Indian Head firefighters.

While those deficiencies did not prevent environmental responders from cleaning up after any spills, the old oil skimmer's inefficiency was cause for headaches and concern.

Both NSF Indian Head and the installation's Stump Neck Annex border some of Maryland's most environmentally-sensitive waters, including wetlands, tributaries and marshes. "The majority of the drainage is either into the extensive storm water drainage system or into the numerous surface bodies of water," said Hartnett. "The majority of the drainage at Indian Head is either into the drainage zones of the Potomac River or to the Mattawoman Creek. Drainage at Stump Neck is either into the Potomac River, the Chicamuxen Creek or the Mattawoman Creek."

Preventing spills from reaching those waters is more than just the right thing to do; it is critical to the health of the waterways.

"Leaks of hazardous materials or petroleum products would have devastating impact on the wild life and aquatic life in each of the creeks or rivers and would lead to further deterioration of the Chesapeake Bay," said Hartnett.

There are a myriad of environmental rules outlining the Navy's responsibilities in such an environmentally sensitive area. The new oil skimmer is small but vital part of the Navy's environmental response in Indian Head. In the event of a major environmental emergency, the Navy can also call upon outside agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, for assistance.

Like many of the environmental professionals employed by the Navy, keeping the environment clean is more than a job to Hartnett. His sense of urgency is also grounded in his personal values.

"I am a member of the Upper Chesapeake Estuary Area Contingency Plan Committee," he said. "Here at Indian Head we strive to go above and beyond these regulations and are actively involved reducing the risk of releasing any hazardous substance into the environment. If we don't take these steps now protect the future of these environmentally sensitive areas of the creeks and rivers leading to the Chesapeake Bay, they will not be here for our children and grandchildren to enjoy."

With a new oil skimmer in the cleanup arsenal, accomplishing that mission has become a little easier for Indian Head's environmental professionals.