By Susan Smith
They call themselves “sewer rats” with pride and named their project S.E.W.E.R. (Save Erie’s Water & Environmental Resources). The Glinodo Earth Force youth team at Walnut Creek Middle School learned through an environmental survey of their community about problems of non-point source pollution from urban runoff. In other words, the students decided to focus their Earth Force project on polluted runoff from streets and parking lots in Millcreek Township. They researched everything they could about urban runoff and its environmental impacts. They even designed and conducted a research project to collect pollutants found in runoff, which meant sticking their hands and even their noses down into catch basins and removing sludge to be analyzed. In this way they would get some idea of the environmental impact of urban runoff in the region and in particular on Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay. “Attempting to determine what is in the watershed and moving into the bay is critical to the future of the bay”, reported Rick Diz, a Gannon University professor and chairman of the Presque Isle Bay Advisory Committee, adding that the students’ research could prove invaluable. “What they are doing is at least a beginning and absolutely can raise public awareness.”
Everything the Earth Force students read said “it was a really big problem, but not many people realize it and do much about it,” said Kevin Henglebrok, the youngest member of the team. There have been challenges in trying to help solve this problem. The students came up with the idea of planting a buffer zone of plants at the Millcreek Mall’s parking lot and Walnut Creek, which runs adjacent to the mall. They believed the buffer zone would slow the runoff from the mall parking lot and catch pollutants before they entered the stream.
However, they soon learned that in the newer area of the mall the developer had installed retention basins to catch and filter runoff. In the older section, however, catch basins gathered and directed the water flow into the stream at a single point, and the volume of water during storms would probably wash away any plantings. The students realized a buffer zone clearly would have little impact.
Carrying their frustrations to the Millcreek Township engineering department, the students learned it was possible to install filters in catch basins to trap pollutants. The students discovered that if they could trap pollutants in the filters, they could collect the material and have it analyzed to learn exactly what was being carried into area waterways from parking lots and streets.
It was the very question the Presque Isle Bay Advisory Committee had long asked, said Rick Diz. The students’ interest was further intensified when they learned from a teacher at the Erie County Technical School that many cars leaked a surprising amount of contaminants, including motor oil and transmission fluid, both of which are hazardous to the environment. “To learn that cars are leaking so much stuff that is just going into our water source was astounding to me,” said Sean Fedorko, member of the SEWER Rats.
The Earth Force students received permission from the township to install filters, which they did with the help of volunteers from the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association and funding from PA Sea Grant. Filters were placed in catch basins at the Millcreek Township School District bus garage lot, parking lots at McDowell High School, Intermediate School, and Walnut Creek schools, as well as at the Millcreek Township building.
With the filters installed, the S.E.W.E.R. rats intensified their efforts to learn all they could about parking lot and street runoff, and what, if anything, could be done to reduce the amount of pollutants flowing from them.
During a meeting with Kelly Burch, chief of the Office of the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, provided them with research information and reports he had. Buried deep in the voluminous amount of material they obtained from Burch, they found a few paragraphs referencing a l972 study on the benefits of street sweeping. The study suggested that regular street sweeping can remove 25 to 50 percent or more of common street pollutants.
“That really surprised everyone,” Henglebrok said. Pollutants become attached to the dust and grit on the streets; however, sweeping it up gathers up the pollutants. Street sweeping clearly seemed to be a way to reduce the amount of pollution washing into the waterways from streets and parking lots.
With more inquiries the students learned that Erie attempts to sweep every street in the city once a week. However, in Millcreek Township, the group’s project site, and many other highly developed suburban townships, street sweeping is done only once or twice a year. “We were startled by the difference,” Fedorko said.
After three weeks, the students removed the five filters and gathered the gook and gunk collected in them. “It was amazing how much stuff collected in just a couple of weeks. It was thick sludge you could hold in your hands,” Fedorko reported. Microbac Laboratories, a local lab, agreed to analyze the sludge for the students free of charge. Lead, cadmium, and other metals, solvents, oils, and greases were all found in the samples. “We know some of what the filters picked up, and we know it came in just three weeks during spring rains, but what that means for the watershed we don’t know,” said Judy Jobes, Earth Force educator and science teacher.
While most Earth Force projects at Walnut Creek are structured for a single school year, the Earth Force S.E.W.E.R. team’s urban runoff study is expected to continue. On the agenda is a controlled experiment using catch basin filters to see the difference regular street sweeping can make in the Erie area. Also, students want to develop a brochure raising awareness of the problem from parking lot and street runoff, and what steps can be taken to help correct it, including fixing any fluid leaks in vehicles.
The Earth Force S.E.W.E.R. team students have gained a lot of attention with their work. “They are amazing,” said Burch.
Future plans are to: determine what test data means from Microbac Labs; study what effect street sweeping has on pollution levels in the Erie area; complete, publish and distribute an educational pamphlet to encourage local residents to reduce toxic leaks of oil, gas, and antifreeze by changing their vehicle maintenance practices; and gather information about street sweeping from local municipalities and work with Millcreek Township to change their minimal street sweeping practice to a level that would improve water quality.
Glinodo Earth Force
6270 East Lake Road
Erie, PA 16511