Environmental Factor, May 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
New SRP webinars to highlight community engagement successes
By Matt Goad
Hoover, an SRP grantee from the University of Kentucky, brought current events to center stage, in describing the groundwater contamination stemming from the Paducah, Ky., uranium-enrichment plant. (Photo courtesy of Anna Hoover)
The Palos Verdes Shelf Superfund site is one of the largest DDT and PCB contaminated sediment sites in the country. EPA has developed a community-based social marketing approach to educate local fishermen and community members about health risks of eating contaminated fish and to promote safer fishing and fish eating practices. (Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)
An NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP)(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/srp/) webinar March 31 kicked off a new series on community engagement, a vital element of SRP projects. The two-hour webinar, part of the Risk e-Learning "Community Engagement: New Approaches and Success Stories" (https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/srp/events/riskelearning/communityengagement.cfm)series, focused on achievements by two SRP grantees, one in Kentucky and one in the Los Angeles area.
Beth Anderson, a program analyst with SRP and moderator for the webinar, explained the importance of community engagement by noting that with any kind of science, the results from the laboratory will not be the same as what scientists experience in the real world.
"By working with the community, getting their insight and their knowledge, and being able to factor that into what you're doing, that makes your work more relevant and ultimately more applicable," Anderson said. "There's a lot of knowledge in the community, and it can really influence how you approach a problem."
A strong history of community involvement
"The Superfund Research Program, as well as NIEHS, has a strong history of seeking opportunities for working with communities and sharing research findings in a useful and informative manner," said NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., in her opening remarks. "Furthermore, our Superfund Research Program's strategic plan identifies the individuals and communities living near hazardous waste sites as key stakeholders in our research and the activities that come from the Superfund program."
Anna Goodman Hoover, communications director at the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute (KWRRI) at the University of Kentucky, presented on community-driven visions of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP), which has been affected by trichloroethylene (TCE) and technetium-99 (Tc-99) contamination in the groundwater.
PGDP, the only operating uranium-enrichment plant in the United States, is closing in the next 5-10 years, and the KWRRI was brought in to work with the community to identify future uses for the site. The KWRRI looked at converted sites in Colorado and Tennessee to determine the best way to proceed.
"One thing we learned from the politics of cleanup is that future-use decisions that are made unilaterally without input from community members run the risk of being inconsistent with those local needs, as well as with the core values held by local governments and others in the affected communities," Hoover explained.
"Surveys with the people of Paducah revealed that community engagement was taking place in regards to the PGDP, but that it was not at a level that satisfied the community," Hoover said.
NIEHS Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences Director William Suk, Ph.D., asked about the long-term prospects of increasing credibility over generations, considering that there is enough TCE in the soil to remain for 100 years or more.
"The bones are in place to continue working on these issues, and we plan to turn our data over to the community." Hoover responded. "The process is there and adaptable as the situation changes."
Propagating safer fish eating practices near Los Angeles
Next, Sharon Lin of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave her presentation on fish contamination education at the Palos Verdes Shelf Superfund site near Los Angeles.
The Montrose Chemical Company in Torrance, Calif., released the chemical DDT into the Los Angeles County sewer system from the 1940s to 1970s, which emptied into the ocean around the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The chemicals remain in the ocean sediment and have gotten into the fish there, especially the white croaker, a bottom feeder with a lot of fatty tissue where the chemical can collect.
"Through monitoring, education, enforcement of bans and limits of croaker fishing in the area and promotion of catch-and-release fishing of white croaker, the EPA, working with local officials, has been able to reduce the number of white croaker brought home from fishing piers and appearing in markets near the Palos Verdes Shelf," said Lin.
The program also promoted the consumption of skinless fillets rather than whole fish, as it is a healthier alternative. "By just changing that one little behavior, we can reduce risk tenfold," Lin said.
(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)