Student Sleuths Discover Pollution Sources

Student Sleuths Discover Pollution Sources

By Jim Rutkowski, Strong Vincent High School

Presque Isle Bay, a Great Lakes Area of Concern, was so designated because of the high rate of tumors and skin discolorations in the Brown Bullhead populations. Core sampling of the Bay by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP) and the U.S. EPA showed elevated levels of phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAHs), and research indicated that these chemicals may be the cause of the tumors. The problem was that the exact source of these pollutants was not known. The problem has been ongoing for over 10 years, with fish tumors first reported in the mid-80s.

We began our work in 1997 and completed the final stage of our project in the Fall of 2001. Using the latest technology, students at Strong Vincent High School used a scientific technique called immunoassay testing to determine the PAH levels in the waters and sediments of Cascade Creek, a tributary of the Bay. The original funding allowed us to narrow the possible location of the contaminants and determine that most of the PAHs were introduced into the waterway during heavy rains, leading us to believe that erosion played an important role in the process.

Our results have been far greater than ever expected. Using our samples and test results, a Big Ten University (Penn State) conducted their own testing and verified our results. These were then passed on to members of the PDEP, the Pennsylvania Great Lakes Office, the Erie County Health Department, and a local sportsman’s group, the SONS of Lake Erie. The one area located as a potential source of the PAHs was also to become the site of a new commercial building, a convenience store/gas station owned and operated by Country Fair.

With the cooperation of all involved, the contaminated soil was removed to a depth of 8 feet, bank stabilization devices were installed, and a riparian buffer zone was created. The success of the work made able by the original grant was used to acquire additional funding, and further testing located a major source of the pollutant, which, again, was confirmed. These findings led to the redesign of a commercial building site on that location, which included a major bank stabilization project and the creation of a riparian buffer zone. During the entire process, the students at Strong Vincent played an active role, from monitoring to planning meetings to the actual planting of the buffer zone.

What do you consider the key to your success?

First was the scientific approach taken by the students. They utilized the proper collection techniques and carefully followed the complicated test procedures. Their work enabled us to determine the mechanism by which the pollutants entered the waterways.

Second was returning the next year to test the soils along the banks, determine the areas of highest concentration, and have these results confirmed.

Finally, the cooperation and team-building of all parties involved allowed our results to influence-in a positive way – the construction of a commercial site and the reduction of the pollutant into the waterway.

How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?

1. Research the latest technology and determine what your group can realistically do

2. Follow standard procedures and techniques. Sloppy work may raise doubt that your findings are accurate.

3. Confirm your findings.

4. Let others know what you are doing and why.

5. Form a team that will use the results to improve the environment. Don’t finger-point. Work together.

What have the effects of this effort been on your school’s work?

Our school is now considered the Environmental Theme School for our district, and the students of Strong Vincent High have been invited to participate in a number of college-level research projects and to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. We continue to be a leader in environmental education in our area.

How has the project affected your community?

The bank stabilization project and riparian buffer zone are visible from two major travel arteries and have been highlighted on TV and in newspaper articles. The erosion control/buffer project has prompted others to look at ways to reduce possible pollution sources along Lake Erie and in the Lake Erie Watershed. Additionally, our school won the “Three Rivers Environmental Excellence Award” in education in 1999.

After winning the award, I* have been invited to a number of places to give presentations on our students’ work on this aquatic habitat protection project. In fact, on April 3, 2002, I attended the East Coast Regional Meeting of the Partnership for Environmental Technology Education to talk about our students’ participation and to encourage others to get involved. *Jim Rutkowski, Supervising Teacher

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

The only major block was getting the permission to enter private land to acquire the samples. Having the students contact the owners proved to be a good way of getting permission.

How many people were involved?

(a) Initially: 40

(b) Finally: Over 200

Approximately 400 hours were spent on the original grant. For the total projects, well over 2,000 people-hours were devoted.

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

Public involvement was provided through the team we built to determine a way to solve the problem. Local government agencies, state personnel, and area environmentalists worked to confirm the results and then invited Country Fair (the developer) to discuss the problem and ask for their support to help solve it.

How was public education a component of your program?

Strong Vincent High School is a public high school, and we used available methods within the high school (bulletin boards, school announcements, student-to-student discussions, etc.) to explain and promote our project.

What was the primary means of communication?

There were a number of meetings held in the Erie area, some at the high school, that brought all the team members together. It took over a year of planning, encompassing many means of communication, to change the original building site into one that protected the environment.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?

The original work was funded through the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund ($3,500) and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters ($3,000). The second year of funding was provided by International Paper’s EDCORE Fund ($9,000). A portion of the bank stabilization project was funded through the Pennsylvania Growing Greener Fund ($94,000). Additional volunteer support came from the SONS of Lake Erie, the Pennsylvania Lake Erie Watershed Association, and students from Strong Vincent High School.

What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain?

Local television stations and newspapers carried the results of our testing and the construction of the stabilization devices.

Other comments to help other schools or grassroots organizations working on similar projects.

With all the technology that is out there, it is not impossible for grassroots organizations to conduct a series of tests for various water pollutants. Though tests administered by students are not EPA-approved, they provide the jump-start for further research by the proper authorities. The person-hours that an organization can provide may be useful in narrowing down the often-elusive sources of nonpoint source pollutants.

Strong Vincent High School
Jim Rutkowski, Teacher
1330 West 8th Street
Erie, PA 16510
Phone: 814-874-6522 Fax: 814-874-6507

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