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An Explosive Problem

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pittsburgh --An environmental clean-up taking place off the Waianae Coast in Hawaii could revolutionize the process of cleaning up the oceans – and thanks to the work that one engineer did while a student at RMU, future clean-ups will cost less money.Ordnance Reef

Eight different companies are collaborating on the effort, but it’s not oil spills or mercury pollution they are after -- it’s thousands of discarded, unexploded military munitions ranging from small arms projectiles to 8-inch shells.

The 21-day trial demonstration, known as the Ordnance Reef Project, is an attempt to efficiently remove munitions from the Hawaiian reefs. The discarded munitions pose a threat to human health and the environment, and some have been in the water for more than 60 years.

It was common practice, mostly after World War II and during the Korean War, to dump excess munitions off military boats near the shore. Past attempts to clean them up have been largely unsuccessful and far too expensive.

Ordnance Reef Demonstration Manager Josh Bowers addressed the difficulty of financing cleaning ventures as the part of his thesis for the RMU master’s program in engineering management.

In his thesis, Bowers focused on technology transfer: how to make normally expensive technologies employed by naval engineers readily available to smaller, commercial companies.

 “There is probably going to be more and more outcry from the public to clean this stuff up, because it migrates toward the shore,” said Bowers, who graduated from RMU in 2010. Recently, hand grenades and at least one 75 mm shell washed ashore in Delaware and ended up in residential driveways.

While working as principal environmental geologist at Antenna Research Associates, a company based in Fairfax, Va., Bowers finished his thesis on Ordnance Reef. Although the actual project was more than five years in the works at the time, it was struggling to attract funding.

Bowers addressed the financial problems in his thesis around the same time the Ordnance Reef Project attracted the support of the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment Safety and Occupational Health.

“I was able to relate a lot of what I was doing and develop proposals along with meeting my course requirements,” Bowers said. He earned his degree while working at ARA and immediately began applying what he learned in the classroom to his job.

Bowers said the flexibility of the RMU curriculum allowed him to work full time, keep up with his coursework, and take care of his two young children at home. 

“I had so many past experiences and ideas flowing out there for technology development that fit right in with my job,” Bowers said.

Bowers, who has worked in environmental engineering since the 1980s, said he was impressed with the way RMU professors were able to relate to workplace experiences.

“Academic learning makes the process of gaining knowledge through experience more efficient. Try assembling a new appliance without studying the assembly instructions first,” said Yildirim Omurtag, interim head of the Department of Engineering at RMU. “Formal education to become a manager of technical people will simply speed up the learning process."

Robert Morris University, founded in 1921, is a private, four-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. An estimated 22,000 alumni live and work in western Pennsylvania.