BOSTON (Sept. 14, 2021) – Awards were presented today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ten individuals and organizations in Rhode Island who were recognized for their work to protect New England’s environment. These businesses, non-profits, and government agencies were among 22 recipients across New England honored by EPA’s New England Office at the 2021 Environmental Merit Awards virtual ceremony.
EPA New England’s annual Environmental Merit Awards are given to community leaders, scientists, government officials, business leaders, schools, and students who represent different approaches, but a common commitment to environmental protection.
Angelo Liberti and Greg Gerritt of Providence, and Annette DeSilva and Veronica Berounsky of Narragansett, were each honored with an award for Lifetime Achievement. Former Director of R.I. Dept. of Environmental Management (RIDEM) Janet Coit was honored with the Ira Leighton “In Service to States” annual award. Also recognized with awards were Farm Fresh RI of Providence and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, of Providence. Finally, EPA recognized the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Rhode Island Water and Wastewater Response Network, and the Rhode Island Water Works Association for their work along with other New England organizations to protect the public from COVID-19 associated risks and ensuring safe water in New England.
“Initiatives led by individuals and organizations like these have made great strides towards combatting climate change, bringing cleaner air and cleaner water, and ensuring our underserved communities’ voices are being heard,” said EPA New England Acting Regional Administrator Deborah Szaro. “EPA is proud to recognize these awardees’ great accomplishments and their continued efforts, especially throughout the pandemic. They truly make a difference in our New England communities.”
“The almost 400 employees of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management join me in offering our enthusiastic congratulations to everyone being recognized this year by EPA Region I,” said RIDEM Acting Director Terry Gray. “The individual work and projects that this year’s awards are based on reflect amazing contributions to environmental quality here in the Ocean State! We are especially proud of the Lifetime Achievement Award being presented to Angelo Liberti. He has dedicated his entire career to protecting and improving water quality, and the awesome improvements in Narragansett Bay are a direct testament to his hard work. In our opinion, no one in New England deserves the Ira Leighton Award more than our former colleague, Janet Coit. Her focus on customer service, building partnerships and strong networks, and continuous improvement throughout government epitomize many of the qualities that Ira was known for and, through Janet’s hard work, has made DEM a stronger, more effective organization. As well, we would like to congratulate Greg Gerritt, who also is being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his career of tireless environmental advocacy, Farm Fresh for their amazing new, and growing, food hub in Providence, and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee whose strong voice is helping to ensure that the principles of environmental justice are upheld in all aspects of government work.”
The 2021 Merit Award Winners from Rhode Island were:
Lifetime Achievement Awards
Angelo Liberti III, P.E., Providence
A life-long affinity for being on the water provided strong motivation for Angelo Liberti III, who is retiring after 30 years as administrator of the Surface Water Protection Programs in the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Angelo’s degrees in marine biology and civil and environmental engineering laid the foundation for a successful career. He led the surface water programs during a time when wastewater and stormwater management were evolving. He advanced water quality-based permitting for discharges and under his guidance, permits were modified to require advanced treatment. This went a long way toward improving water quality in Rhode Island’s rivers and in Narragansett Bay.
A boater, scuba diver and recreational shell fisherman, Angelo has deep knowledge about Narragansett Bay, knowledge he applied in 2003 serving on panels established by the governor to make recommendations related to what was known as the Greenwich Bay Fish kill, involving the death of a million fish due to lack of oxygen. Angelo was instrumental is shaping the bi-state strategy to reduce nutrient pollutant loadings from 11 wastewater treatment facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island tied to problems in upper Narragansett Bay.
Angelo is RIDEM’s leader on eliminating combined sewer overflows, work that has reduced discharges and opened areas for shellfishing that were closed for over 75 years. Angelo’s expertise and ability to act under pressure were incredibly valuable in 2016 when an outbreak of algae bloom closed major portions of the bay to shellfishing.
Angelo ensures that decisions are scientifically sound and protect the public interest. His depth of knowledge, attention to detail and analytical skills have directly benefited the state’s environment. Rhode Island’s waters are healthier because of Angelo’s service.
Greg Gerritt, Providence
Greg Gerritt has devoted his life to protecting the environment and preserving natural resources. He grew up in New York City, but developed an early appreciation of the woods and nature, visiting the Bronx Zoo and American Museum of Natural History.
Greg organized his high school’s first Earth Day and has been immersed in the greening of America ever since. He studied evolutionary biology and anthropology, and ultimately decided on working with nature over an academic career. He has built an award-winning solar house and has run a successful social carpentry business.
For the past 20 years, Greg has worked part-time for the Environmental Council of Rhode Island. Throughout his career, he has organized events, spoken in schools, and coordinated efforts to build community support for environmental preservation. Among his numerous accomplishments, he started and for many years coordinated the Buy-Nothing Day coat exchange in Providence. He started and coordinated the Rhode Island Compost Conference to raise awareness of food recycling and build a compost industry. He started a watershed organization for the Moshassuck River and organized clean ups, tree plantings and other stewardship activities.
Recently, Greg restored a small stormwater drain in the North Burial Ground in Providence to a small wetland habitat area. He obtained permission from the city and permits through RIDEM and through Greg’s perseverance, the project became reality and serves as a small oasis for amphibians in the cemetery. Greg has filmed small creatures being born and passing through the site, then posted the videos online.
Throughout his career, Greg has advocated for protection of our environment and the need to respond to climate change. His advocacy is focused on fairness and justice and making sure everyone shares in the joys and benefits of our environment.
Annette DeSilva, Narragansett
Annette DeSilva is being recognized for her 30 years of outstanding and sustained stewardship of the Pettaquamscutt Estuary, known locally as the Narrow River.
In 1992, Annette, with Veronica Berounsky and others, founded Narrow River Preservation Association’s River Watch Program in concert with the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program. Monitoring water in the estuary allows the association and local officials to identify problems and find remedies.
Since the start of the River Watch program, Annette has been coordinator of the all-volunteer program, supporting over 200 volunteers who spent over 8,800 hours at the Narrow River taking over 47,400 field measurements and obtaining more than 13,700 water samples.
Under Annette’s leadership, the program has expanded to 13 sites, which includes streams and stormwater outfall pipes. Having found high bacteria counts that could not be explained by processes within the river, Annette advocated adding new sites so inputs could be examined. Shortly after the program started and one test site showed high bacteria counts, an outhouse along Gilbert Stuart Stream was removed, resulting in clean water samples within weeks. Since then, countless projects informed by River Watch data have been installed. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needed water monitoring done in 2015, it came to the association because of its reputation for reliable river monitoring.
Annette and colleague Veronica Berounsky have presented detailed findings, trends, and summaries of decades of River Watch data. These show improvements in water quality and identify problematic areas that require more research and mitigation. Having served on the association’s board of directors from 1990 to 2018, Annette is now an advisory board member.
Annette’s 30 years of commitment to the River Watch program has resulted in improved water quality in the estuary. This well-established program will continue to lead to improvements for decades to come.
Dr. Veronica Berounsky, Narragansett
Dr. Veronica Berounsky is being recognized for her 30 years of outstanding and sustained stewardship of the Pettaquamscutt Estuary, known locally as the Narrow River. As both a board member and vice president of the Narrow River Preservation Association, Veronica’s environmental advocacy has led to environmentally responsible development and the protection of the watershed.
A powerhouse of energy and dedication, Veronica was instrumental in creating the association’s River Watch program in 1992, which has directly led to better water quality in Narrow River.
In 2018, after high bacteria was found in two spots on the river, Veronica secured the funds then organized and oversaw an innovative program that uses trained dogs to detect human bacteria. The failing septic systems the dogs identified now are being repaired.
Veronica works to involve the public in protecting the health of the watershed. She has led educational tours for students and visiting academics, teaching them about the estuary’s ecology. She also led a program to educate teachers on teaching students about watershed ecology. Veronica founded “Art on the River,” inspiring artists and families to create art along the river’s edge. She also began “What Lives in the River,” an event inviting families to discover the creatures in the Pettaquamscutt Estuary area with volunteer experts on hand. In 2005, Veronica led the creation of the “Narrow River Turnaround Swim,” a fundraiser highlighting the river’s excellent water quality. In 2020, she initiated a swim that had participants swimming the six miles from a tributary to the mouth of Narrow River.
Veronica has shared her talents with other organizations, serving as chair of Rhode Island Rivers Council since 2013, contributing to the Coastal & Estuarine Research Foundation and New England Estuarine Research Society, and working with the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
Veronica’s sustained, consistent, and outstanding efforts have directly led to better water quality in the Pettaquamscutt Estuary.
Ira Leighton “In Service to States” Annual Award
Janet Coit, Rhode Island
Janet Coit, former director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has been a leader in finding ways for the New England states to work as a team. This is evidenced by her nomination for the Ira Leighton Award by commissioners of New England’s state environmental agencies. Janet set an outstanding example that motivated RIDEM’s employees and her colleagues across New England.
As other leaders joined and left the Northeast Committee on the Environment, Janet provided consistency throughout her decade-long tenure at RIDEM. Her commitment to the work of such regional efforts has made a real difference. She readily engaged in regional environmental challenges, including addressing PFAS, responding to climate change, improving water quality, and addressing equity and justice issues.
The longest serving chief executive in RIDEM’s history, Janet made major improvements to its culture and operation. From her appointment by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in 2011, she insisted RIDEM focus on customer service. Her accomplishments led to her reappointment by both governors Raimondo and McKee. In 2021, she was appointed assistant administrator for Fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and serves as NOAA’s acting assistant secretary of commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and deputy administrator.
In Rhode Island, Janet focused on improving natural resource conservation, promoting locally grown food and addressing the climate crisis. Janet’s work as RIDEM director not only involved leading the state’s environmental protection efforts, but also the natural resources and agriculture programs, including fisheries and fishing ports. Before joining RIDEM, Janet was state director for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island for 10 years. Before that, she was counsel and environmental coordinator for the late Sen. John Chafee and, subsequently, then-Senator Lincoln Chafee. Janet also was counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.
Environmental, Community, Academia & Nonprofit
Racial and Environmental Justice Committee Members
Monica Huertes And Vatic Kuumba, Providence
The Racial and Environmental Justice Committee in Providence, RI, is dedicated to ensuring that communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and historically excluded from decision-making take the lead in making decisions affecting them. The committee, made up of 11 community members and local residents, has become the voice and ears of many Providence communities with environmental justice concerns and has helped bring a racial equity lens to the city’s Office of Sustainability. The committee, through trainings and advocacy, has helped citizens and government officials better understand the disproportionate environmental harm historically faced by communities of color and other populations. The committee is a model for communities building support starting from the ground up, showing that training is central to raising awareness and gaining political will and public support needed for change. The committee developed recommendations that were adopted in the city’s Just Providence Framework in 2017. And the committee drove the creation of three Green Justice Zones in Providence, which aim to ensure residents have a voice in development and use decisions, and which are incorporated in the city’s 2020 Climate Justice Plan. The committee, through its work with frontline communities, has emerged as a key group consistently speaking up for residents whose voices were historically not heard in decision-making processes.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Providence
Farm Fresh Rhode Island recently completed construction of a 60,000-square-foot Food Hub on a 3.2-acre brownfield site in Providence’s Valley neighborhood. The facility houses key programs of Farm Fresh, including distribution of locally grown food and produce, farmers markets, job training, and nutrition education. Ten related businesses share the space with Farm Fresh as well, creating a stronger local and regional food system that dovetails with the increased awareness of the importance of sustaining local agriculture. This $17 million project, completed in fall 2020, re-purposed a former industrial site and incorporated numerous good environmental stewardship practices. The site, 100 feet from the Woonasquatucket River, was raised two feet to improve climate change resiliency. A half-acre of open space is open to the public and a rooftop solar array will provide half the facility’s electricity demand. During construction, large quantities of marble were found underground, a reminder that all of the marble for the Rhode Island State House was cut here. Over 30 pieces of marble were incorporated into the landscape. The Farm Fresh RI development is a model in “smart growth” with its focus on re-using an abandoned urban manufacturing site and re-purposing it for the 21st century.
COVID-19 Ensuring Safe Drinking Water Team, a conglomerate of New England’s state drinking water programs, state water and wastewater agency response networks, and other water sector associations that ensured the safe operations of water utilities during the pandemic. This conglomerate included the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Rhode Island Water and Wastewater Response Network, and the Rhode Island Water Works Association.
During the pandemic, water system managers and operators faced staff and chemical shortages, restricted access to assets, and health and safety challenges. In the midst of this, drinking water programs created new guidance around flushing, hydrant sampling, tap sampling and Legionella control as well as designed new protocols that enabled state staff to perform remote sanitary surveys of water utilities. The programs also issued email newsletters; helped with virtual meetings with the state drinking water staff; developed virtual training opportunities; and offered professional training to keep certified operators up to date. While the New England state drinking water programs worked to address the regulatory, policy, and technical assistance challenges of the pandemic, the state water and wastewater agency response networks worked to protect the health and safety of water system managers and operators. Because of their efforts, drinking water in New England remains safe and plentiful, even during the pandemic.
It also included from other New England States: Connecticut Department of Public Health, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Drinking Water Program – Center for Disease Control, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, Connecticut Water and Wastewater Response Network, Maine Rural Water Association, Maine Water and Wastewater Response Network, Massachusetts Water Works Association, Massachusetts Rural Water Association, Massachusetts Water and Wastewater Response Network, Vermont Water and Wastewater Response Network, Vermont Rural Water Association, New England Water Works Association, Rural Community Assistance Program.
EPA New England each year recognizes individuals and groups in the six New England states who are distinguished by their work to protect or improve the region’s environment. The merit awards, given since 1970, honor individuals and groups who have shown ingenuity and commitment. The Environmental Merit Awards, given for work or actions done in the prior year, are awarded in the categories of individual; business (including professional organizations); local, state or federal government; and environmental, community, academia or nonprofit organization. Also, each year EPA presents lifetime achievement awards for individuals.
For more information on EPA’s Environmental Merit Awards, including photographs from the award ceremony: https://www.epa.gov/environmental-merit-awards-new-england
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