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Faith obligations instill perseverance to achieve them

By Mary Stamp

In his career from identifying Superfund sites to working on Hanford nuclear waste cleanup, Robb Lowy knows the complexities of fulfilling his religious obligation to do his part to heal the world.  From that, as well as from blowing a shofar, he knows the obligations can be difficult to do, so he appreciated the opportunity to help build a well to supply water to a village in Rwanda.

Robb Lowy
Robb Lowy holdshis shofar - one instrument for fulfilling
religious obligations.

“I’m in the heal-the-earth business—from developing clean water supplies for Native American pueblos with the U.S. Geological Survey, to cleaning contaminated soils for private industry, to identifying solutions for waste management to protect the Columbia River at Hanford,” he said.

With religious obligations integral to a life of faith, Robb said that from the Jewish call to heal the earth and people comes Tzedaka—charity in Hebrew.  The need to heal the earth has been exhibited through individuals and organizations that, through the generations, have cared for people, organized workers, started labor unions and created social service organizations.  The process is ongoing.  The process also grows in each individual life.

As a waste remediation specialist, he has dealt with toxic wastes from oil refineries, natural gas exploration, mine tailings, unprotected landfills, radioactive tank-waste and 55-gallon barrels dumped in back yards or junk yards.

Politics, economics, people and zero tolerance for error at Hanford limit his ability to apply what he knows as a geologist and environmental engineer to deal with protecting groundwater from leaking tanks, stabilizing waste with a radioactive half-life and finding a “safe” long-term storage site.

In November, he accomplished a tangible task: ensuring a supply of clean drinking water to a remote, 120-person, pygmy village in Rwanda by bringing equipment and helping local workers convert a contaminated surface water spring into an eight-foot-deep well with a distribution pipe. 
From there, he knows it’s up to the Batwa—the pygmy tribe—what they will do with the new resource.

Through his life, he said that his understanding of Judaism has grown as he has participated in Reform and Conservative synagogue functions—while growing up on Long Island, during a two-year journey around the United States, and in his professional career in New Mexico and Washington.

Living outdoors or under field conditions for much of his career as a geologist and environmental engineer and living on a houseboat three days a week when he is in Richland, he appreciates nature. There he has the Columbia River is his “back yard” and the Bateman Island Wildlife Refuge is his “front yard.”

After graduating in 1972 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., with a degree in geology, he worked two years as a machinist, saved $2,000 and used that money to travel around the United States.

When his money ran out in New Mexico, he began doing odd jobs in Albuquerque and then began his career working with the U.S. Geological Survey on a water resource development project to protect indigenous water rights in Northern New Mexico.

Robb worked an environmental regulator for the State Environmental Protection Agency, while finishing a master’s degree in geology at the University of New Mexico. 

With New Mexico’s Superfund Program, he worked three years to identify hazardous waste sites that threatened groundwater and soils.  His work entailed driving around the state and Indian reservations to find waste sites, including four Superfund sites he put on the national registry for cleanup.  Along the way, he earned a second master’s degree in environmental engineering.
Through a private consulting firm he joined in 1987, he assisted clients such as the U.S.

Department of Energy, private firms, petroleum companies, mining concerns and the city of Albuquerque on environmental restoration.  He has worked on projects in seven states where remediation efforts are now underway.

In 1990, Robb moved to Richland to help start a field office for Los Alamos Technical Associates (LATA), an engineering firm that does waste investigation and remediation.  While at LATA, he worked on developing treatment and action strategies to manage radioactive wastes at Hanford.
He started his own small business, TDP Roberts Corporation, in 2000 to work as an environmental consultant throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Over his career, he has seen many kinds of hazardous, toxic, chemical and radioactive contamination—PCPs, PCBs, dioxin, gasoline spills, radioactive mining sites and uranium tailings.

“It is hard to reconcile that to clean one site, we may make a previously clean site dirty,” he observed.
He understands the frustration of finding clean energy sources and returning land and water to a pristine state. 

For example, while some consider coal a “clean” energy source, Robb said large quantities of radioactive materials can be released when it is burned to generate electricity. 

Similarly while some consider nuclear energy a “clean” alternative, the problem of what to do with the radioactive waste remains. 

While he considers nuclear energy an effective way to generate energy the nation demands, he said the cleanup processes complicate that source.

“We have not agreed on a safe disposal repository for radioactive waste,” he said. “While Yucca Mountain could be engineered to be a safe repository, it has been rejected because of politics and economics.

“Even though the radioactivity of nuclear waste dissipates over time through radioactive decay,” he said, “the waste can’t be stored at Hanford long term.

“It can’t reside in dry soil, because rain will transport it down 200 feet into the groundwater,” Robb said. “The creation of artificial lakes or ponds as part of processing at Hanford has also accelerated the migration of contaminates to the groundwater. 

“It can’t remain in single-shell tanks, because they have exceeded their design life—66 of the 149 single-shell tanks are suspected to be leaking as they have reached the end of their 50-year life span.  We are running out of storage capacity in high-integrity double-shell tanks built to replace the single-shell tanks,” he said.

Government requirements have eliminated options of stabilizing radioactive waste in glass, as France does, for lack of proof it would be stable for 10,000 years, and of reprocessing waste to separate and reuse part of spent fuel for medical research or energy production in breeder or thermal reactors.

“Meanwhile, use of nuclear energy continues to generate more waste, while more than 100 million gallons of waste sit in tanks at different DOE sites,” he said.

In the context of that frustration, Robb appreciates the tangible results in Rwanda.
In 2008, he joined the Healing Hearts Northwest Project of UJAMAA-Medical Connections, a medical and public-health organization that organized Spokane doctors to travel to Rwanda six times to help rebuild the medical infrastructure destroyed in the 1994 genocide.  He is UJAMAA’s only engineer. 

In November, Robb went to Rwanda with funds he raised to help build a well and distribution system to provide clean water for the village of Bwiza.

It took little money.  He hired local villagers to dig a well downstream of an existing spring.  Villagers no longer have to spend hours walking down a steep trail to slowly fill four-gallon containers with a cup from a trickling surface spring that is contaminated with fecal bacteria, worms and parasites from the soil.  They no longer have to carry the water back up to their homes.
Robb designed the project and paid $50—$1 a day each for 10 village men for five days—to dig the well, glean well construction materials from nearby hills and install a rock-lined distribution pipe-in-channel to provide water on demand.  The water flows at a rate so villagers can fill a four-gallon can in 10 minutes.

“That gives people more time to tend their fields, improve their agricultural plots, care for goat herds, and sustain their culture,” he said.  “I have given them the gift of time.  It’s up to them how they spend it.”

He also brought other simple gifts to help improve their standard of living and increase their life expectancy, which now averages 45 years.

He and other humanitarian workers supplied blankets to keep people warm at night. 
“We thought they would want mosquito nets to fight malaria, but villagers said malaria does not concern them, because most already have it and the nets easily catch fire from cooking fires they maintain in their grass huts. 

“Although at the equator, Rwanda is 6,000 feet above sea level and it can be cold at night.  That’s an example of why we need to work with the village council to identify meaningful improvements—not just those we think are necessary,” he said.

Knowing that people are exposed to soil-borne diseases through their bare feet as they walk to school or the market, or work in fields, Robb and the team have delivered donated flip-flop sandals, so children can attend school and people can work.  They have also supplied school uniforms, so children can meet the school dress code.

Helping villagers is more than charity. 

“The tribal leader insisted that, for children to receive a uniform so they can attend school, parents must guarantee their child will eat one meal a day.  With food, children can keep alert, learn and use their knowledge to benefit their family,” Robb said. “Traditionally, parents eat first so they can work, knowing they can have more children to replace those who die.”

Robb hopes his assistance will help improve the village’s safety and quality of life, just as he hopes applying his geological and engineering skills to hazardous and nuclear waste cleanup will improve safety and quality of life here, fulfilling his mission to “heal-the-world.”

Blowing shofar helps people fulfill their obligation to hear it

Robb Lowy considers his learning to blow the shofar to help lead services at Congregation Beth Sholom in Richland as an example of how living one’s faith can be challenging. 

With just 50 families and no rabbi, the members must help lead the services.  Because everyone had to take on a role at High Holy Day services, he started blowing the shofar, a curved ram’s horn with a hole at the tip. 

Even for him, a former French horn player, the task was not easy.  There is no mouthpiece, so he had to learn how to use his throat and lips to set up vibrations to resonate through the horn. 
“It only took a few weeks to figure out but over 15 years to get good at,” he said.

Traditionally, the shofar is blown publicly only three times a year: to welcome day one and day two of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year in September—and one blast to announce the end of Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement in September or October. 

In ancient days at the Temple in Jerusalem, the shofar was used more frequently.  It announced festivals, holidays and the new moon.   Robb also blows the shofar at the annual Spokane interfaith Thanksgiving service each November.

“Our sages say there is no commandment to blow the shofar, only to hear it,” he said. “Without me blowing it, the people cannot fulfill the ‘Mitzvah’—commandment or good deed—of hearing it.  One of our wise men, known as the Rambam, explained that blowing the shofar is a call to action—for sleepers to awaken and arise.  It is a call to examine our behavior and become the best we can be.”

When he stays in Spokane, Robb attends Temple Beth Shalom, where he shares the Ba’al Tekiah—shofar blower—duties with Ron Grossman. 

“Our shofars blend beautifully in harmony,” he said, noting that “when I am spiritually healthy, the blasts come out cleaner.”

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