EDWARDS AFB – For Bob Wood, dirt isn’t a four-letter word.
In fact he’s shouldered the responsibility of cleaning the dirt at Edwards for as long as the base has had an organization set up for that purpose. That may sound funny to some. But those in the know are deeply aware that Edward’s environmental clean-up needs were as broad, as varied and as unique as its history of flight test going back to World War II. Literally a one of a kind base in the air as well as what it harbored deep underground in the form of toxic spills and compounds that accumulated through years of supporting the Right Stuff of flight test.
Wood, chief of Environmental Management for the last 10-plus years is set to retire after serving more than 42 years in the Department of Defense – with the last 28 at Edwards.
During his time at Edwards, Wood’s name has become synonymous with Environmental Management – appropriately so.
He’s the one who set up the organization. In 1986, as a long range planner within the Plans and Program Directorate, Wood was tasked to get the base environmentally compliant. At the time, the base was out of compliance in 26 areas. Wood was directed to design an environmental organization to meet the challenge.
“As directed by Col. Bob Ettinger (then vice commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center) I designed an environmental organization that would be needed to bring the base into compliance and keep it there. It was based on an amalgamation of the organizations at McClellan AFB, Tinker AFB, Vandenberg AFB, and what I could glean from other federal agencies and private industry,” Wood said.
Environmental Management began with 27 people – 13 government civilian positions, 13 contractors and an Air Force major – as a branch within the civil engineering squadron. That organization has grown with the mission to about 45 civil service employees and more than 70 support contractors today who work to keep Edwards AFB in compliance with more than 3,000 regulated environmental aspects in the three counties that encompass the installation and the six additional counties in R-2508 where test missions are flown.
Ironically, Wood had to be convinced by senior leadership to apply for a position in the organization he just developed – first by the AFFTC chief of staff and then by the executive director.
“I told (Col. Chuck DeBellevue, AFFTC chief of staff) I had done environmental planning for 13 years and I didn’t think the AFFTC really was supportive of the environmental compliance program; I didn’t want to sign on to an organization that would not support me. We shook hands and I went back downstairs to my XR job,” Wood said.
“The next day Mr. Pete Adolph, the AFFTC Executive Director, an SES-2 position, called me to his office, sat me down in front of his flags and test pilot gauges and planes and gave me the same pep talk that Colonel Debellevue did. We negotiated and I got a promotion and a promise that the AFFTC was really behind the environmental program.
“I told him that the first time the base showed that it didn’t care about compliance that I would find a new job,” Wood said.
After accepting a position in Environmental Management and working that first year with a firm of environmental experts brought to the base to help it become compliant, the group found some “interesting and disturbing things.”
At one point, when he sensed the base was waffling and backing away from its commitment to environmental compliance Wood had what he called an epiphany.
“For a moment I was ready to find a new job, but Mother Nature had a long talk with me and she is very persuasive, being able to provide lots of guilt if I didn’t do her bidding. I realized that all along my real employer had always been Mother Nature, the Corps (the Army Corps of Engineers, where Wood previously worked) and the Air Force were just paying my salary,” Wood said.
“For the next 20 years I did my best to keep my word to Mother Nature. She is a harsh mistress. If I slacked off or let something through that harmed the Earth or the people she laid the guilt thing on me,” Wood said.
Over the ensuing years, Environmental Management has developed a long track record of success in meeting its original goal – helping the base remain compliant with environmental law. As an example, Edwards has a solid 19-year record without any hazardous waste notices of violation in one of the most environmentally stringent states in the nation.
The health of base workers and residents has always been a priority for Wood. Even before Environmental Management had come into existence he was instrumental in making the jet engine test facility a safe place to work. Heading up a team of professionals from different base organizations, he helped convinced center leadership of the need to clean up and update the facility, remove asbestos and modify safety equipment to provide better protection to the workers while keeping the test mission going.
Wood also managed the response to a 1991 Army Corps of Engineers report showing that Edwards was a non-stockpile chemical weapons site. He created his own team to visit National Archives and other government document repositories. These searches showed there was a World War II-era chemical weapons storage yard near active dorms and almost on top of where new dormitories were about to be built. Construction of the dormitories was delayed until workers could determine that the site was clean – by excavating the site under a large tent fitted with a massive air filtration system to ensure the safety of dorm residents nearby in case the cleanup crew had uncovered contamination.
Wood was a key player in the development of the installation’s first Base Comprehensive Plan and tying it into a computer-based Geographic Information System. At the time, Edwards AFB was in peril of losing future infrastructure funding unless a BCP was produced and approved by senior leadership. This effort provided, for the first time, an accurate computerized topographical map of the entire base with layers upon layers of information, which has proven invaluable to the base, senior leaders say.
The system replaced handmade charts and included, for the first time, all as-built real property records, roads, utilities, facilities, flood zones, natural resources and cultural resources in a real-time searchable information system.
After he was promoted to director of Environmental Management in 2002, he tackled head-on his responsibility to help limit encroachment concerns. Wood initiated a highly technical and comprehensive surface water flow study and analysis to define, protect and preserve the base’s surface water rights. After gaining higher headquarters authorization, he directed a contract that quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed all flow contingencies that could impact flight test mission operations, including resurfacing requirements and local water management controls. This effort enhanced the understanding of how vulnerable the installation was to outside influences and underscored the importance of working in close coordination with local water district managers.