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Superfund sites

Center takes holistic approach

Photo by E. Franklin Dukes
U.Va. students (left to right in white coats) Caroline Brennan, Ginger Watkins, Lauren Noe and Irene Boland listen to EPA Remedial Project Manager Christian Matta at the Ordinance Works Disposal Area in Morgantown, WV. Also, at far right is Leo Argaugh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

By Jane Ford

Central Chemical was a vital part of the Hagerstown, Md., community for almost 50 years. But the former pesticide and fertilizer blending and storage facility closed in 1984, and it later was declared a Superfund site. Fences now separate it from the community that once embraced it.

Hagerstown is far from alone. More than 1,233 sites are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, and communities that want to transform them from toxic threats back into community resources face an almost overwhelming challenge fraught with complexity and the stigma of chemical contamination.

In addition to the scientific and financial issues involved in a cleanup, communities must address legal, cultural, technological and land-use matters.
A new center at U.Va. — created with a grant from EPA of $600,000 — $200,000 a year, renewable for three years — is helping by taking a holistic view of reclaiming these sites. The research will help the EPA and individual communities better understand the dynamics of the process and facilitate the successful reclamation of the sites.

“This is the first time a truly interdisciplinary team is taking a look at Superfund site reuse issues,” said John Harris, national program coordinator for Superfund redevelopment at the EPA.

Jonathan Cannon, professor of law and director of the center, said, “The focus in recent years has been on putting these sites back into productive use. They represent resources that communities can use to build schools, factories, apartment buildings, commercial space or sports fields. We are going to be looking at these sites and developing information and options for how these sites can be developed and expanded.”

The interdisciplinary center, in its second year of operation, includes a team of 12 faculty members and students from law, architecture, commerce, engineering and the College of Arts & Sciences.

With input from the EPA, the center identified six sites around the country that represent different contamination issues. Members of the cen-ter will share research and resources through workshops, conferences, publications and the center’s Web site (

The educational component of the center includes not only public outreach, but also the inclusion of students on the center’s team.

Julie Bargmann, associate professor of landscape architecture, organized a lecture series last spring to explain the expertise of the center’s members and introduce the issues to students and others in the University community. She is teaching a landscape design studio that is investigating solutions to one of the six center research sites.

Bargmann, who’s been working to reclaim industrial sites with her design firm, D.I.R.T. (Design Investigating Reclaiming Terrain), believes it is important to understand the complexity of weaving these sites back into the communities.
“Students see that what they need to become is educators — to translate, re-interpret and reveal the capacity of the landscape,” she said.

Through her work in the center, Janet Herman, professor of environmental sciences and an expert in the geochemistry of groundwater, said that major challenges are not only communicating between technical and non-technical disciplines, but also influencing decisions made during the reclamation process. She emphasizes to students that if they want their research to contribute to creating a better environment, a better life and a better world, they need to communicate the cultural side of technical questions.

One of Herman’s students, Melissa Kenney, a May environmental sciences graduate, created a computer model based on one of the sites as her distinguished major thesis. Kenney’s cost-benefit analysis places values on issues such as clean aquifers, reducing global warming, scenery and protecting drinking water.

The model adds perspective on various options and helps focus thinking about the process of remediation. Kenney worked with Herman and environmental finance expert Mark White, associate professor of commerce and a center member.

“It was great to be able to work on such an amazing study in its initial phases and work with faculty from so many different disciplines,” said Kenney. “It gave me a taste of what interdisciplinary research is like.”

E. Franklin Dukes, director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation in the School of Architecture, is an expert in facilitating dispute resolution and public participation processes. Next spring, he will teach a class that will work on guidelines to facilitate community meetings that would enable Superfund stakeholders to envision new opportunities for contaminated sites.

“It’s a process of education and awareness — bringing people together to look at the cultural and social aspects and to communicate and resolve issues of identity and reuse, ” Dukes said.

People associated with Superfund sites who are not part of the center’s research are starting to seek out their expertise, Dukes said. “There is a growing interest in the expertise of the center.”


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