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Indy Burke
Indy Burke

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A University of Wyoming professor will soon be playing a key role in ensuring that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies and regulations are based on sound science and the latest research.

Indy Burke, the director of the University of Wyoming's Environment and Natural Resources Program, was appointed earlier this month by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to serve on the agency's Science Advisory Board.

The 48-member board, created in 1978, works to give scientific data and technical guidance to Jackson as she crafts national environmental policies on issues ranging from global warming to hydraulic fracturing.

“It is the science checkpoint for our environmental policy,” Burke said Tuesday. “It's influential in that we review the science that goes into the policy decisions.”

Burke will be one of only four board members from the Mountain West — a scarcity she speculated was because of the EPA's focus on air and water quality in urban areas.

Ironically, though, Burke will chair the board's Ecological Processes and Effects Committee, which has been heavily focused on coastal issues such as investigating the scientific basis for regulating ships' ballast water to curb the spread of invasive marine species.

“It'll be sort of interesting to have a chair from the Intermountain West on that,” Burke said, laughing.

Another issue Burke said the board will likely take up is health questions surrounding the procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, in which a mixture of sand and various fluids is pumped deep underground to fracture gas-bearing rock to create pathways for the gas to flow toward a well bore.

Many environmental and public health advocates claim there's not enough information about the fluids being pumped underground and not enough assurances that the chemicals are not getting into drinking water sources.

“It does look to me as though there are key science questions that haven't been answered about consequences of hydraulic fracturing,” said Burke, who added that she knows little about “fracking” right now. “There's just a lot of mystery and a lot of myth out there about hydraulic fracturing, and the role of the Science Advisory Board will be to, in a case like this and a number of other cases, evaluate the real information that's there.”

Burke's main field of study is biogeochemistry — a field that, in particular, studies the Earth's natural nitrogen and carbon cycles and how that affects living things.

“If you really want to know how a (ecological) system is behaving, focusing on the nitrogen cycle or the carbon cycle tells you a lot,” she said.

Burke isn't a newcomer to the EPA's Science Advisory Board: She had already been serving on the Ecological Processes and Effects Committee as a non-board member.

As a board member, she'll meet with other board members in person four to five times a year and participate in biweekly teleconferences.

Burke said she considers it an honor to be able to serve the EPA and bring to the EPA the best scientific research available.

“I think it's really great to have Wyoming be represented in this,” she said. “And I hope that I'm going to be able to do a really good job being a leader and representing the state for the EPA.”

Contact Jeremy Pelzer at jeremy.pelzer@trib.com or 307-632-1244.

Contact Jeremy Pelzer at jeremy.pelzer@trib.com or 307-632-1244.

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