Researchers Turn Environmental Disaster into Learning Experience

By Dolores Jalbert Leonard, UNH/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology

You could say that Washington D.C.’s Anacostia River is like New York City for environmental engineers. If you can make a new idea work there, you can make it work anywhere.

Decades of contaminated runoff have helped earn the Anacostia a place on the country’s top ten list of most polluted rivers. It was this dubious distinction that attracted UNH researchers Jeff Melton and Brad Crannell, who were in search of a challenging place to test a new way of treating heavy metal pollution in river sediment.

Once there, they found they weren’t the only ones who had decided to view an environmental disaster as an opportunity to do something positive. About 50 feet from their test site was home base for Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the beleaguered Anacostia into a much-needed brass ring for youth from one of the nation’s most impoverished and polluted neighborhoods.

Through hands-on environmental education and an extremely effective stewardship program—among other achievements, they’ve collected 5,000 tires from the river since 2004—Corps members train for their high school GED, sharpen academic and professional skills, and develop the confidence to become community leaders. And, as it happens, the flat-bottomed skiff they use to clean up the river is perfect for scientific field work.

“We were looking for an affordable way to collect sediment samples,” explains Crannell. “When I found out who owned the boat, I realized they might be interested in helping out.”

They were, but on one condition. Melton and Crannell had to educate the Corps on how the technology worked. All of which is how the researchers found themselves on the ECC boat, working side-by-side with young D.C. residents at the tough job of extracting core samples from the river’s mucky bottom.

“It’s one thing to listen to a presentation, and another to go out and get wet and muddy as you wrestle up the cores,” says Melton, a research assistant professor in UNH’s Environmental Research Group. “I wanted them to have a firsthand experience of what its like to be an environmental engineer.”

“This was a tremendous opportunity to bridge two generations for a common purpose,” says Glenn O’Gilvie, Earth Conservation Corps president and CEO. “There’s a lot researchers can teach our students, and there’s also a lot they can learn from people who accomplish admirable things, under adverse circumstances, at a young age.”

The UNH technology is part of an ongoing demonstration of sediment remediation technologies, so it is likely the researchers will team up with the Corps for future sampling exercises. The technology was first developed by UNH Research Professor Taylor Eighmy, with a grant from CICEET, the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology, a partnership of UNH and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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