Journal Archive > 2002 > April

Environmental education

Empowering communities to address environmental problems

If a town owns contaminated land where a factory once stood, can the land be cleaned up enough to use as a playground? Or would it be better and more safely used as a parking lot? If a company was polluting a river, when can residents who live and work along its banks feel safe?

When a community faces an environmental problem, the amount of data and documents involved can be daunting. Cities, towns and neighborhood groups often face tough decisions about the cleanup and use of property within their boundaries but don't necessarily have the means to hire experts for help.

The Housatonic River has been polluted with PCBs, a by-product of work done at General Electric in Pittsfield, Mass.

Since 1994, faculty and students from Tufts have been involved in a program that aims to interpret data and help communities and grassroots organizations make decisions about contaminated land and waterways.

A national effort
Tufts' Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is part of a national consortium funded by the Environmental Protection Agency that provides community assistance through two programs: Technical Outreach Services to Communities, known as TOSC, and Technical Assistance on Brownfields, known as TAB. This support is received through an ongoing relationship with the New Jersey Institute of Technology with funds provided by the EPA. Tufts and several other area universities serve the New England region.

Among its contributions:

A Tufts faculty member found a way to show residents along the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Mass., where polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, remain by creating a computer animation program. In addition, Tufts is coordinating ongoing efforts to address community concerns.

Tufts was part of a process that helped a Bridgeport, Conn., community decide how to use the only open space serving 39,000 residents.

Several plans for cleaning up and using land where a fertilizer plant once stood adjacent to Hingham Harbor on Boston's South Shore were stalled until Tufts was able to help community groups work with the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to accomplish their goals.

Educating the decision-makers
David Gute, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, has been the principal investigator for Tufts since it joined the consortium. "We serve as an objective broker of information," he said. "We don't tell the community what to do; we have no ax to grind. We are there to assist and empower the community to make better decisions."

Gute said Tufts helps communities hold public educational meetings about toxicology and remediation and also makes recommendations to citizen groups and agencies. Graduate students have participated in the projects, and several have used the program as a basis for their own research. Undergraduates have attended community meetings, and material from the program is brought into the classroom by Gute and by other professors. Among the faculty members who have been involved in the program are Lewis Edgers, professor of civil engineering; Christopher Swan, associate professor of civil engineering; Lee Minardi, a senior lecturer in the department, and Mark Woodin and Anne Marie Desmarais, lecturers in civil and environmental engineering. In addition, Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, has contributed to the program.

Learning by doing
"These projects provided many opportunities for learning and the honing of practice-based skills for faculty and students," said Gute. "The greatest benefit, however, was derived from the satisfaction of empowering citizen organizations to make decisions and achieve progress in addressing issues of environmental concern."

Minardi helped find a way for residents along the Housatonic River to better understand where PCBs remain in the river by helping them visualize the contamination via computer. PCBs are in the river as a by-product of work done at General Electric in Pittsfield in its manufacture of transformers and other equipment. These compounds are known to cause cancer in animals and are being studied to determine their role in other health issues. PCBs have been found not only in the river sediment, but also in the yards of more than 200 homes around the city and in the playground of a local elementary school. While a major cleanup is going on, residents are still concerned about the effect of PCBs.

Minardi's computer animation simulates a flight south along the river from the GE facility. Signposts along the way indicate where and when PCB measurements were taken as well as the quantity and their depth below the riverbed. In addition, Gute and Desmarais chaired panels of environmental experts in Pittsfield in February that will issue a set of recommendations for possible studies to address community concerns about human health effects and remedial technologies. The panels were sponsored by the Housatonic River Initiative, a citizen-activist group.

In Bridgeport, Conn., Tufts has worked with a West End neighborhood trying to decide how best to use open space that is bordered by brownfields—idle, or under-used industrial facilities where redevelopment is complicated by environmental contamination. Went Park's softball fields are used by athletic leagues, and its playground is the only recreation area for the neighborhood. The field serves as the only outdoor facilities for a nearby high school and elementary school. Tufts was one of a number of participants that helped the neighborhood decide to expand the park and make areas available for an improved playground, playing fields, a community plaza and other amenities that are helping to revitalize the area.

Michael Taylor, president of Vita Nuova, a consulting company that is aiding Bridgeport in the project, praised Tufts' work. "Through Tufts' involvement," he said, "our brownfields program has been enhanced significantly and has helped residents and other stakeholders deal with environmentally impacted sites in a positive way that returns community benefit."