Corps PE Wins Top Honor for Pipeline, Infrastructure Work

May/June 2018

NSPE Today
Corps PE Wins Top Honor for Pipeline, Infrastructure Work


For achievements including leading the US Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District during the high-profile Dakota Access Pipeline permitting process, John Henderson, P.E., has been named NSPE’s 2018 Federal Engineer of the Year.

The annual award, sponsored by the Society’s Professional Engineers in Government, honors engineers employed by a federal agency with at least 50 engineers worldwide.

Henderson, an NSPE member, learned he had been named the top federal engineer at the February 23 ceremony in Washington, DC. The former Omaha District commander accepted the award on behalf of the 1,300 engineering and project management professionals he oversaw at the district and their “incredibly amazing” work.

At the Omaha District, Henderson oversaw more than $50 billion of critical federal infrastructure, including dams, hydropower plants, levees, navigational channels, and recreational areas.

One major achievement during his tenure was negotiating a partnership with the Western States Power Corporation to rehabilitate six federal hydropower plants on the Missouri River. As Henderson explains, the plants—the primary source of power for most of the Midwest—were antiquated. The $1 billion of sustainment and rehab work, paid for by the private sector, will extend the plants’ life and enable clean power for decades to come.

But it was the Dakota Access Pipeline project that garnered the most attention during Henderson’s time with the Corps. The Omaha District was responsible for evaluating permit applications for portions of the project, along with performing needed environmental and cultural assessments.

The project received national attention and attracted thousands of protestors, as Major General Scott Spellmon, Army Corps Northwestern Division commanding general, noted in the award nomination. But, Henderson, “remaining steady while under scrutiny, consistently demonstrated profound leadership by focusing teammates on the role of the Corps as a neutral party, exercising regulatory authority according to the law and sound science, and building trust with all involved parties through the consistent demonstration of dignity, respect, and integrity toward all.”

Henderson explains that he and his team worked with about 32 different Native American tribes in the Missouri River Basin while evaluating the permits to avoid negative impacts to existing projects, the environment, and health and human safety.

He adds that he had a “very healthy and productive” working relationship with most of the tribal leaders as the permitting and legal issues were being worked out in court. “I went out and personally walked the ground with some of [them] on more than one occasion,” he says.

The professional engineer emphasizes that his license reinforced his duty to work ethically, drawing conclusions within a complex set of environmental circumstances based on sound science.

Henderson has recently been appointed to a new position: assistant secretary for installations, environment, and energy for the US Air Force. One key focus in this new role is driving innovation—for example, overseeing R&D on aircraft fuel efficiency. The position, which he calls “a tremendous honor,” required presidential nomination and confirmation by the US Senate.

Learn more about the Federal Engineer of the Year Award and watch highlights from this year’s ceremony.

Top Ten Finalists

Frank Block III, Ph.D., P.E.
US Department of Health and Human Services
Food and Drug Administration

Commander Martin Casey, E.I.T.
US Department of Health & Human Services
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Raymond Hansen, P.E.
US Air Force
Air Force Civil Engineer Center

Philip Hinson, P.E.
US Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans Health Administration

Garrett Karnowski, P.E.
US Air Force
Special Operations Command

Rafid Kully, Ph.D., P.E.
US Air Force
Air Education and Training Command

Marketa McGuire, P.E.
US Department of the Interior
Bureau of Reclamation

Major Steven Schuldt, Ph.D., P.E.
US Air Force
8th Civil Engineer Squadron

Theresa Shirey, Ph.D., P.E.
US Department of the Navy
Naval Surface Warfare Center
Panama City Division