From Labs to Middle Schools

  • Geophysicist Scott Calkin, of Amec Foster Wheeler, shows a map of the ground at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory during a presentation to seventh graders about tracking and containing chemical contaminants on Jan. 30, 2018, at Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover, N.H. In class, the students have been studying real cases that have occurred in the environment in addition to coming up with mock models for contamination spread.(Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hanover — A team of scientists cleaning up environmental pollution at a federal laboratory on Lyme Road faced down questions from an unusual audience on Tuesday: a roomful of seventh-graders at Richmond Middle School.

Army Corps of Engineers officials at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory for decades have been tracking spills of an industrial chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE, that in recent years was found to be traveling underground toward the school, across the street.

Recent investigations found no danger to Richmond or any of CRREL’s neighbors, either through liquid contaminant or through gas in the soil. In the meantime, teacher Ginger Wallis has turned the experience into a lesson for students.

“I would love you to imagine having a job where some chemical has spilled on the soil,” said Wallis, who first brought the scientists to Richmond last year, to more than 150 children waiting for the presentation to begin.

” ... You have to figure out where is it going. Is it going toward the Connecticut River, is it going toward the school — and how can we stop it?” she said. “It’s detective work.”

After an enthusiastic round of applause, Rod Rustad, a hydrogeologist who helped the Army as a consultant, began to explain how the scientists tackled the first of two questions in the investigation: how a series of small spills over decades pooled and traveled through the rock and soil underneath the research facility.

Twenty seconds in, Rustad launched into an explanation of how trichloroethylene — a solvent that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a known human carcinogen — “volatilizes” in underground “media” like soil and gravel. As he spoke, a girl in the second row leaned back and started to rub her eyes.

But students soon perked up as Rustad showed computer renderings of CRREL and the school, stripping away layers of earth beneath them to show the underlying geology and pointing out the dozens of test wells that the investigators drilled.

“Those two are on our field,” a teacher pointed out.

“Yes,” Rustad said. “Right on that third-base line.”

In fact, one of the test sites was right underneath the children’s feet, he said, pointing to the second row. A minor scuffle ensued as the seventh-graders bent and craned to catch a glimpse of a shiny metal cap that covered a “sub-slab” sampling point — one of several places where scientists take measurements to make sure gaseous TCE isn’t entering the school from below.

Using his colorful computer models, Rustad explained that a system of pumps around the contamination site ensured that no liquid TCE reached the Connecticut River or any of the facility’s neighbors. Soil gas has been found under the school, he said, but too far down to pose a risk.

Scott Calkin, a geophysicist colleague of Rustad’s at a multinational consulting company called Amec Foster Wheeler, took over from there.

Calkin explained how his team helped track a separate 1970s-era spill of TCE to a deep spot in the Connecticut River and then along fractures in bedrock to residential wells that are no longer used for drinking water.

“Where do you think the TCE is going to go if it’s heaver than water?” he quizzed.

“Down to the bottom!” a boy cried out.

“What machines do you use to drill so deep into the ground?” the newly attentive girl in the second row, Mo McBride, asked.

She leaned forward as he gave his answer: “They’re really big drill bits.” So big, he said, that they’re sometimes positioned over the ground by cranes.

“Does anyone like stories?” asked Darrell Moore, the Army Corps of Engineers official overseeing the remediation.

What the engineers have done here, he went on to explain, was to tell two stories about the two contaminations. Using their expertise, the scientists build a picture of what they think happened, and then, using data from below the ground, they prove it.

As it happens, the students have been doing something like that in their classes. Up on the stage was a geological model, a diorama between two glass plates that demonstrated the flow of water or contaminants through various kinds of soil.

Wallis said her students and others had been using the model to learn about hydrogeology.

The classes have been taking real environmental cases and making conjectures about how spills would have played out. They “prove” their hypotheses by releasing colored dyes that represent contaminants into the model and watching where they go.

“It was really fun,” Wallis said afterward, before hustling off to her class.

Near the end of the presentation, Moore and his colleagues expressed admiration at the seventh-graders’ questions and their interest in this advanced subject at such a young age.

“You’re going to be our future scientists,” Moore told the children. “And you’re going to tell these stories even better than we told them today.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.