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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

January 11, 2002

Students Track Toxicants in East Deerfield Rail Yard

Click on map for larger view
Laurie Fila '03 reconstructed the history of contaminant use at the East Deerfield Railroad Yard to show known and potential contamination sites. She hopes her map will inspire conversation among Deerfield community residents and former rail workers and that it will be refined as a result of that dialogue.

It's not every day that research by undergraduate students attracts the attention of news reporters, city selectmen, and planning board representatives. But then it's not every day that Mount Holyoke students investigate potentially toxic chemicals that some residents suspect could be creating a public health hazard in the nearby town of Deerfield. This was the work of nine MHC students last fall, the culmination of their Environmental Contaminants class with Emily Monosson, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies.

For the last five weeks of the semester, the students worked with Deerfield resident Lynn Rose, a former community relations professional for Superfund hazardous waste sites. Their project was to help Rose reconstruct the history of the East Deerfield rail yard, where six oil spills are currently being monitored by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and to consider whether the yard presents environmental or health problems for current populations or future development. If present at the site, contaminants could affect nearby residents and flow into the Deerfield and the Connecticut Rivers, which are used for swimming, fishing, irrigation, and spawning of endangered fish. Monosson's students contacted state and federal officials, interviewed former railroad workers, researched toxicants, and studied maps and histories of the more than 150-acre East Deerfield Railroad Yard that serves the Boston-Maine Railroad. On December 6 they presented their findings at Deerfield Elementary School to an audience that included local media, city officials, and representatives from the railroad and the agency that coordinates environmental efforts for the Deerfield and Connecticut Rivers.

"It's one thing to read about environmental regulations and chemical effects but another to muddle your way through it and understand it enough to present it to the public!" said Monosson, a toxicology consultant who often encounters real-world opportunities for students to apply their classroom learning on chemicals and their effects on humans and the environment. Last year, Monosson's students prepared a report on the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the Housatonic River for the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Connecticut, whose 300-acre reservation is located along the Housatonic in Kent. Currently, two of her independent-study students are researching chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a potentially toxic chemical mixture used to preserve the pressure-treated wood found in many school playground sets. "I want students to learn that if there is an issue about which they or their community is concerned, they can do something," said Monosson of her community-based assignments.

The Deerfield rail-yard project was perhaps the most difficult project that Monosson's students have tackled outside the classroom. "It went way beyond the toxicology that was introduced to them during the first half of the semester," said Monosson, who was impressed that her students accomplished so much work despite the project's complexity and despite the lack of soil samples or reports from the railroad company. They mapped known and potential spills of petroleum at the rail yard, summarized the land's use and ownership history, investigated the state's process for environmental regulation and cleanup, considered land characteristics that affect underground movement of chemicals, detailed the toxicity of typical rail-yard contaminants, and projected the potential for contaminants to be present at the Deerfield rail yard.

Although more research remains to be done, the students' work did contribute to Rose's project. Research done by Frances Perkins student Laurie Fila '03, for example, left Rose with a professional-looking site map of known and suspected sources of contamination, compiled from official reports of diesel spills; conversations with former railroad workers about rail-yard spills and practices prior to environmental regulations and implementation of OSHA standards; collaboration with classmates; and personal observations.

"Her original site map was probably seven feet long. It consisted of taped-together sections of aerial photos with tons of notes written either directly on the map or on Post-it notes," recalls Fila, who worked as a graphic designer before becoming a student at Mount Holyoke. "When I saw that map taped on her wall, going around a corner because it was so big, I came up with the idea for my part of the project. As a designer, I knew the importance of the graphic component in trying to represent a complicated situation. As a student in Remote Sensing, I also knew how much information can be obtained digitally and how much easier it is in the long run to have spatial data in a digital format that can be added to and changed as needed. I hope the map I built will be used to more accurately determine specific spots that should be tested for contaminants. This, in turn, should improve the likelihood that the tests will be effective, and that money spent on these tests will be well spent."

Carey Baldwin '02 and Caitlin Jenkins '02 contributed computer-generated maps showing the site's slope, soil types, and water access, as well as research on how potential contaminants—degreasing solvents, petroleum products, and heavy metals including cadmium, chromium, and lead—might move and interact in such conditions. Their work shows that contaminants spilled or improperly stored at the rail yard could move quickly through the soil and into the rivers, an important point to make to authorities considering testing soil or water samples for toxicity.

"The most memorable aspect of the project was the feeling that I had something important to share with people about the place where they live," said Baldwin. "Those people were genuinely interested in what we had to say, and we all felt accountable to them." Baldwin also had a personal interest in the project. A native of Deerfield's neighboring Conway, she feels a kinship with Deerfield's residents. "I feel I have a general sense of the Deerfield community in terms of what it values," she said.

Unlike many final projects, the work of Fila, Baldwin, and their teammates will not be hidden away in dorm closets or parents' basements. Rose plans to refine their research and use their maps, PowerPoint slides, toxicology charts, and resident surveys to educate her community about the project. She said, "The data that we are gathering is one tool in an attempt to initiate assessment of the whole site, not just the reported spills, so that we can determine what contaminants are present and have migrated off-site, facilitate the process of cleanup, prevent future contamination, and determine if area development is feasible. Having the help of highly motivated Mount Holyoke students, especially with the technical research, was a real blessing."

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