Monday, June 2, 2014

WWU, Ecology team to train future cleanup experts

By Seth Preston, communications manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

As a college student, Susannah Edwards toured the Everett Shipyard cleanup site on Port Gardner Bay.

Now she's working on cleaning up the shipyard as an Ecology employee.

Susannah, a sediment specialist in training in the Toxics Cleanup Program, joined Ecology in October 2013. She graduated in 2012 from Western Washington University with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science with environmental toxicology emphasis.

While there, she took part in the Science and Management of Contaminated Sites (SMoCS) courses at Western's Huxley College of the Environment. The Toxics Cleanup Program helps support SMoCS through an interagency agreement with Western.

"I liked that it was very 'real world'," Susannah said of SMoCS.

Putting it together

Dr. Ruth Sofield started and runs the SMoCS program. She said she got the idea when she heard Tim Nord, a former TCP section manager, speak at Huxley College about cleanups in May 2009. He mentioned that Ecology had received some money as part of a natural resource damage settlement tied to cleaning up the former Scott Paper mill site in Anacortes.

Dr. Ruth Sofield
Some of the settlement money was going to go to Western for environmental education. Ruth said she figured her students, who were training in toxicology and other cleanup-related subjects, would be well suited to put that money to use.

So she set about designing a program to train students in cleanup work. She said a key point was a brainstorming session with Bob Elsner, then with the Port of Anacortes, and engineering consultant John Herzog. Bob and John were working on the cleanup of the Scott Paper site, which the port owns.

Ruth said she still retains many of the ideas from that meeting, including "the idea of the students behaving like consultants in the class." They use information from real cleanup sites to put together projects similar to those produced by professionals.

"I also wanted to show the students that a cleanup decision isn't as easy as 'clean it up because it's dirty -- and do a good job cleaning it up.' I wanted them to understand the complexities (scientific, political, societal, etc.) of these decisions," she said.

Talking about science

It's important to be able to communicate those complexities. So in 2012, Ruth teamed with Rebekah Greene, who is the faculty adviser for the student-run The Planet magazine. The award-winning publication focuses on environmental issues. Rebekah also advises students interested in environmental journalism.

Teaming up helps the science-oriented students learn how to communicate about their technical information and work, while the journalism students learn how to understand and explain the science of cleanup.

Students create group projects focused on science and communications as part of their course work. For example, in 2010 the first group of SMoCS students worked on projects at the Scott Paper mill site on Fidalgo Bay in Anacortes.

"We were able to deploy mussel cages while dredging was on hold because of fish passage," Ruth said. "The students looked at how (creosote-treated) pilings on the site affected mussel growth and survival."

And students have made videos about the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) and the massive cleanup effort in the town of Skykomish, as well as a comic book that educates people about cleanup work under MTCA.

Learning by doing

Susannah Edwards at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill in 2012.
SMoCS students also learn from experts in environmental fields who visit the campus. Ruth said that's important, because it gives students a number of different perspectives on some complex issues.

Students visit cleanup sites, including making trips to the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Susannah said touring sites like Everett Shipyard and Cornwall Avenue Landfill in Bellingham and talking with working professionals made it easier to focus on studying. That's because she saw how her course work could be practically applied.

"I think the biggest thing was seeing how organic chemistry, statistics and other challenging courses were going to translate to the work world," she said.

And now she's seeing it up close.

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