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Wetterhahn Awardee Turns Attention to Schools

By Rebecca Wilson
May 2010

A woman speaking at a podium
During her doctoral program at Brown, Senier worked with Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Phil Brown, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, in the Reuse In Rhode Island: A State-based Approach to Complex Exposures project (see story( funded by SRP. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A bearded man speaking at a podium
NIEHS SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., introduced Senier and told the audience about the history of the prestigious Karen Wetterhahn Award. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A man listens intently to another person speaking off-screen
NIEHS Program Administrator Ted Outwater was part of the Worker Education and Training Program group in attendance at the talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Former Superfund Research Program (SRP) Trainee and Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award( winner Laura Senier, Ph.D., (see story( recently paid a visit to NIEHS to discuss the community-based outreach she participated in as part of Brown University's SRP program. Her presentation was well received and sparked a lively discussion among attendees.

The special presentation by Senier demonstrated how the SRP can be an effective vehicle for bringing together many stakeholders who are concerned about environmental public health and environmental justice. 

Training and working with the Brown SRP

Senier( Exit NIEHS received her Ph.D. in 2009 from Brown University, and is now an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She calls herself the "non-traditional Wetterhahn Award winner" because she is the first social scientist to receive the honor in its 11-year history of recognizing outstanding trainees engaged in more traditional bench science research.

With substantial experience working with environmental justice issues and in environmental health activism, Senier applies her social science training to outreach work to bring about change. Her approach to outreach is demonstrated by her work with the Brown University SRP( Exit NIEHS Community Outreach Core, which investigated the siting of Providence, RI public schools near toxic waste sites and made stakeholder involvement a key element of the project.

Building schools in all the wrong places

According to Senier, inappropriate school siting is a nationwide problem that disproportionately impacts poor communities and communities of color. The first Providence-area school brought to Brown's attention was an elementary/middle school built in 1999 on a former city dump. The site was known to be contaminated with lead, arsenic, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and mercury.

Parents of students and nearby residents filed a civil action lawsuit, citing environmental racism -78 percent of the student body is nonwhite; lack of environmental equity; and inadequate public notice. The city then built a middle school atop another dump in 2000, and in 2005, the city selected a slag heap for an area high school. Half the neighboring community is below the federal poverty limit, and more than 90 percent of the residents are nonwhite.

The site for the proposed high school was the old Gorham silver factory. Once America's premier silver manufacturer, the factory closed in 1986. The land went through subsequent owners before being seized by the City of Providence in 1992 for unpaid taxes. The 37-acre lot was subdivided into four parcels, one of which became the proposed home of the school. The site is heavily contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a slag heap containing lead and copper, and ground- and surface-water contaminated with the chemicals perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE).

The Brown SRP outreach team educated the community about the site, then helped the residents organize to protest the construction of the school. The team worked in middle school classrooms, teaching students about environmental justice and public speaking so they could take their concerns to the city and the school board. While investigators were engaging with community stakeholders on these projects, Brown faculty members were working through the Research Translation Core to better characterize potential for vapor intrusion at the site.

Stakeholder participation leads to community involvement

Senier argues that the Brown SRP team was successful because the researchers carefully balanced the needs of the multiple stakeholders concerned about contamination around the site - the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, legal advocacy groups, community-based environmental justice organizations, and the surrounding community. The Brown SRP dedicated substantial resources to this problem through both the Community Outreach Core and the Research Translation Core.

Senier points out that because Brown SRP had relationships with all stakeholders, "We were also able to bring stakeholders together by convening a statewide panel to develop new guidelines for brownfield redevelopment that mandate community involvement in new projects, to prevent situations like this from occurring in the future."

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

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