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Professor Loretta Fernandez Receives Grant From The EPA

October 3, 2017

Assistant Professor Loretta Fernandez has received a $405K grant in collaboration with the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center from the Environmental Protection Agency to further her pilot study research addressing the contamination issue of sediments in the Grasse River Superfund site in Massena, New York, including polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminated sediments along 7.2 miles of river.

The Grasse River Superfund site is where Alcoa, Inc., a producer of aluminium and fabricated aluminium, and a mining company, had a manufacturing facility in the 1900s and released hazardous waste including PCBs on its property as well as into the Grasse River.  PCB’s are toxic molecules that have the potential to accumulate in tissues of animals and human beings and have the possibility of leading to ovarian cancer.

Usually the accumulation of waste in sediments can be dredged out because it is on the top layer. In this case, however, the waste is highest in the deepest sediments of the river, making it impossible to remove. To counter this problem, a layer of soil and sand along with a foot of cobbles have been placed over the contaminated area, creating an engineered cap to prevent the waste from interacting with the water and moving to sites where fish and clams are harvested for food.

The main aim of the study is to check the effectiveness of this engineered cap and determine the direction of the movement of contaminants. To do this, Fernandez’s lab at Northeastern University will prepare and analyze polyethylene passive samplers. The samplers will be made in clean conditions in the lab and transported to the site on ice. Divers will then install the samplers around the cap. After a month, the samplers will be tested to determine concentrations in the water within and above the cap. A positive study would show little to no gradient in the sampler.

The testing of the samplers will provide for the determination of freely dissolved concentrations and chemical activities of PCBs in sediment pore water, cap pore water, and surface water. Fernandez’s research also intends to confirm that the polyethylene passive sampling methods used in the field can accurately detect advection of pore water across the sediment-water interface. 

Fernandez commented, “Bioaccumlation is a big environmental concern. PCBs can accumulate in tissues of small as well as large animals, and PCBs in the tissues of fish and shell fish can be consumed by humans. This study will not only throw a spotlight on the current solution to the problem, but also create a demand for the creation of something more effective if the cap is found ineffective. This, in turn, will help reduce the presence of toxic wastes in the water and its consumption by the large population of New York.”