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NESC Celebrates 30 Years of Helping Small Communities

2009 NESC staff For the past 30 years, the National Environmental Services Center (NESC), located at West Virginia University (WVU), has been providing environmental service to small communities. NESC traces its roots to 1979, when WVU professors Willem Van Eck and Raul Zaltzman established the National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC), a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the public health and environment of the nation's small communities by providing wastewater information and assistance. Since that time, NESC has grown to become a national expert, not just in wastewater, but in drinking water, environmental training, infrastructure resilience, and utility management. Over the years NESC's mission has held steadfast, but the organization as a whole has seen many changes.

Creation of the Clearinghouse

The need for a clearinghouse that dealt with innovative and alternative wastewater systems for small communities was first recognized in the Clean Water Act of 1977. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this clearinghouse was set up at WVU with the help of professors Van Eck, Zaltzman, and West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph.

The clearinghouse was managed by the WVU Energy Research Center, which is now called the National Research Center for Coal and Energy (NRCCE) and the Department of Civil Engineering. M. Dayne Aldridge, director of the Energy Research Center whose expertise was in electrical engineering, knew little about wastewater technology when he was asked to direct this new program. "It was somewhat outside of the scope of the Energy Research Center. I've told people I learned more about sewers than I really wanted to know," Aldridge said laughing. Nonetheless, Aldridge embraced the program.

So with a handful of employees, the clearinghouse set up shop in the basement of the Centennial House on Stewart Street in Morgantown, West Virginia. Along with Zaltzman and Van Eck, three other WVU professors, William Sack, Robert Jenkins, and Paul Moe, reviewed technical articles that were published in journals and magazine. These were then put into a database of literature about small wastewater systems. The clearinghouse also had a technical assistance phone line for customers with wastewater problems or questions. In 1980, the first Small Flows, a small newsletter published periodically with a circulation of 23,000, was first published.

Tough Times

Just as the clearinghouse was completing its first year of operation, it lost two of its key members. In February 1980, Moe and Zaltzman were in an automobile accident together that took both of their lives. Shortly after these deaths, the clearinghouse lost another member when Marion Jones, who helped manage the database and organize workshops and conferences for the clearinghouse, died of cancer.

"We went through a period after those deaths where we wondered if we were going to keep doing this," Aldridge said. "As I recall, we had to get support from Senator Randolph and a decision had to be made."

The clearinghouse trudged on and for the next several years struggled with funding until the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act in 1987, which provided a significant increase in funding. With this increase, the clearinghouse's services and staff grew.

In 1991, the organization added the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse and the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities to its roster of services. In 1993, the NESC moved to where it is housed today, at the NRCCE building on WVU's Evansdale Campus. Also in 1993, the first of the National Onsite Demonstration Projects was begun. This eventually grew to become the National Onsite Demonstration Program, showcasing alternative wastewater treatment technologies, with sites at more than 100 communities across the country.

NESC Grows

Starting as a vision from a handful of employees in a basement, NESC has grown to include more than two dozen employees.

Currently under the direction of Dr. Gerald Iwan, Ph.D., NESC now provides other services with expertise in drinking water, environmental training, infrastructure resilience, utility management, and onsite wastewater demonstration projects. NESC produces three publications that cover these areas of expertise: Small Flows Quarterly, a magazine about wastewater, Pipeline, an easy-to-read newsletter about wastewater topics for homeowners,and On Tap, a magazine about drinking water. NESC also maintains a vast inventory of low-cost and free products that customers can order, a toll-free technical assistance hotline, and a Web site with searchable databases.

Over the past 30 years, NESC has seen many changes, many ups and downs, but has remained loyal to its mission of providing assistance, solutions, and knowledge to small communities. Part of NESC's success and longevity can be attributed to it's former Director John Mori who said, "We are valued because we don't have an agenda. We are valued because we're only interested in what is going to work in the community, and that's a rare commodity."

But this focus doesn't mean the organization is resting on its laurels. "The next few years are going to be exciting, considering population growth, public health, climate, economy, security, and social restructuring," Iwan observes. "The need for reliable infrastructure, safe, sustainable drinking water resources; and sound waste and wastewater management systems and practices will become even more apparent as we wrestle with these and other emerging issues."