This story was originally posted on Jackie James Creedon's Blog, The Whole Truth on May 14, 2013.
On Wednesday May 8, Andrew Baumgartner, Tonawanda Community Fund (TCF) intern attended the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2′s seminar titled “Leveraging Environmental Monitoring – Key Steps in Producing Credible Data” at University of Buffalo (UB) North campus. Here is his review from the seminar.
Me, designing and reporting TCF soil study
The purpose of the workshop was to help teach “citizen scientists” how to produce useful data and reports that can be used in community based environmental monitoring, data that could open up new doors for community groups like the Tonawanda Community Fund. Although it’s always been possible for community groups to do their own preliminary research, the EPA now recognizes the effectiveness of this type of research and is promoting concerned citizens to act as partners in change. This was only the third workshop of this type in the country. Judith Enck, our EPA region 2 administrator, is a big proponent of citizen science, so we have her to thank for bringing this seminar to Western New York
The first half of the program focused on the details behind what’s considered “good” citizen science and things to keep in mind when designing projects, both from a scientific and an activist point of view. EPA representatives touched on a little bit of everything, from statistics to the organizational structure of a community based project. For the less technical people in the room like myself, this all went by a little fast and was fairly brief. Focusing on mostly air and water sampling, the information didn’t always directly apply to the soil testing like that of the Tonawanda Community Fund (TCF), but did get across the main idea of the need to look heavily into the design of a study before starting. Things like background samples, co-location of test sampling, contamination all need to be taken into account before proceeding. Since community groups usually don’t have a lot of extra cash sitting around, this is easier said than done.
Sampling, whether it’s the equipment or the lab analysis, is expensive so community groups have to pick and choose between spending money on gathering more data or validating data already obtained. This is where the EPA comes in. When having to make decisions like these, the EPA can be a great ally. Also available are local colleges and universities who can help out and provide everything from professor input to undergraduate volunteers to help provide the most credible data for the money spent. We understand how this resource can be helpful because UB and the State University of NY at Fredonia are currently collaborating with us on a soil testing project in Tonawanda.
The second half of the program focused on what to do once the community based data was obtained. Groups can then use their reports to apply for grants and gain more support both politically and residentially for their cause. The main purpose of a preliminary study is to show whether or not further study is warranted, and it’s hard to say exactly where to go from there until you have a judgment call on what the data actually means. Touching on an example used, an air sample showing toxins could mean either that the air is polluted, or that am amtrack train was idling nearby giving a “false positive”. This judgment call is up to whoever is reading the report, whether it be somebody at the EPA, a local professor or a politician. This is why it’s so important that citizen scientists focus on gathering “good” data not just data. Even if a study does show high levels of whatever toxin you’re looking for, there’s a long process of rationalization that has to be done afterwards to determine whether or not those numbers reflect what’s going on in the community as a whole.
TCF members taking soil samples in Tonawanda: Me, Chuck Matteliano (L) and Jackie James Creedon (Background)
While I was working with the TCF on our preliminary soil study in Nov. 2012, I kept these things in mind during its design. We had to think about contamination, background sampling and the overall scientific validity of our work. To prevent contamination, we made sure that our samples were taken several feet away from the curb, grills, lawnmowers, driveways and anything else onsite that could be another potential source for the contaminants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH’s) we were looking for. We took our comparison sample upwind, in Grand Island, of the suspected pollution source. This was used to compare samples from an area of suspected contamination to that of what we considered “normal” soil in the area. We wanted to be able to take more background samples, as well as co-locate samples as suggested in the EPA seminar, but our financial limitations acted as a roadblock. Our report was finished in the spring of 2013 and given to both the EPA and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation for their interpretations of our study.
This summer (2013), the TCF will be doing an extension to our original soil study by taking 12-24 more samples in neighborhoods around the Tonawanda industrial corridor. If you live in Grand Island, the Tonawanda’s, North Buffalo, or Kenmore, and are interested in having the soil tested in your yard, contact TCF at 716-873-6191.