Virginia Tech Magazine

Virginia Tech Magazine


Volume 14, Number 3
Spring 1992

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MENDING OUR BREAK WITH NATURE

by Su Clauson

From the lacerations in the rain forest and the ozone layer to the toxic rain that sweeps the Eastern U.S. mountains to global warming patterns, there's no doubt about it-the Earth is wounded. And some say time is running out. As spring's green force shows once again that nature has not been vanquished, we might examine our links with the natural world-a world that is more and more affected by us. It is time to think about what should be done to renew her energy.

At Virginia Tech, a number of projects have been undertaken which benefit the environment. In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, researchers are studying how to increase the numbers of endangered wildlife such as water birds and the freshwater mussels that clean Virginia's rivers. Scientists are also researching ways to deal effectively with hazardous wastes, minimize chemical use on farms, monitor water quality by studying aquatic insects, use waste products to reconstitute damaged soils, monitor pollution from agricultural runoff, and develop a computerized decision support system for water quality monitoring.

Engineering faculty are experimenting with bacteria to clean up underground oil spills, washing coal for cleaner burning, studying energy management in Eastern Europe, and removing potentially harmful chemicals from water treatment processes, to mention just a few of their many projects. Other university projects include studies of groundwater pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, ways to change environmental attitudes, and how to decrease microbial pollution of ground and surface water.

In this, our "green" issue, we'd like to highlight a few of Virginia Tech's special programs and people dedicated to environmental quality.

Worldwatch seminar leader not just watching

University Distinguished Professor Bruce Wallace has seen the films from South America showing children born and raised in shacks built on huge city dumps. He has watched them play in and pick their way through the mounds of garbage, and he fears he is looking at the future of an ever-growing segment of the world's population. The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, in fact, says mankind has 40 years to reverse environmental deterioration or face a precipitous decline into economic and social ruin. The institute also warns we have only 10 years to start that reversal.

Wallace knows some people consider him a "crazy environmentalist" because he takes Worldwatch seriously, but he thinks those people are missing the point. "They [the institute] may be wrong," Wallace says. "They're human beings, too. But I'm really not interested if they're wrong by 60 years or 100 years. The point is we need to look at what we're doing." The institute is not saying "we'll come to a screeching halt and we'll all die, but things will go downhill ... Human beings can adapt to anything, and if we have to live in garbage heaps, we will."

That 1990 Worldwatch report re-awakened old stirrings from Wallace's days as a biology professor at Cornell University, where he taught a course called "Biology and Society." He expanded the concept at Virginia Tech last spring by establishing the Worldwatch seminars, weekly forums at which experts from virtually every discipline across campus take turns presenting and debating environmental topics. He knows he cannot rescue the world by himself, but he hopes to get a few people thinking. "Just getting this sort of information out and making it common knowledge is the best anyone can hope for," Wallace says. "If it can't be done at a university, where can it be done?"

The key to the forums is the cross-disciplinary exchange that, for instance, could lead biologists and economists to understand each other better instead of screaming their viewpoints across a table. Wallace trust sthe seminars will push some professors to change the way they teach their courses, but he pins most of his hopes on providing "a real whirlpool" of ideas for students, who he says "synthesize things" better than entrenched professors. "I would hope that from out of these dialogues, for instance, when an engineering student goes out ... he knows some of the impact his work will have on the environment," Wallace says. That student might then design an elevated bridge in mountainous terrain to avoid the loss of wildlife habitat and groundwater supplies caused when builders level hills to fill in the valleys.

The Worldwatch seminars have been informal or "underground," but next year will become somewhat more official. Students in special three-hour courses will attend the forums and then meet one other day of the week to discuss topics more in-depth. In addition, students enrolled in the enrichment sections of other courses will be urged to go to the seminars. Wallace hopes that eventually the university will grant one hour of credit to any student who regularly attends the Worldwatch seminars.

Center solves Virginia water problems

Bacteria are being encouraged to clean up groundwater. Virginia farmers are learning to use agricultural practices that protect our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Elementary school children are being trained to become the future guardians of Virginia's water quality. The Virginia Water Resources Research Center can't take all the credit for these accomplishments, but through its research and informational efforts the center plays a vital role in solving the state's complex water and land-use problems.

In 1964, Congress established a network of water research institutes throughout the nation and four territories, most at land-grant universities. In 1965, Virginia Tech appointed civil engineering Professor William R. Walker to set up and direct the state's water institute. Walker began operations with only a part-time secretary, but he rounded up federal and state funding and the staff to fulfill the center's three missions: to sponsor research that addresses Virginia's critical water problems, to train future water resources scientists, and to inform and educate the public about state water resources issues.

During the past 27 years, the center has sponsored more than 200 research projects conducted by faculty throughout the state's university system. About 200 of these projects have been published after peer review.

Water News, the center's monthly newsletter, has a subscription list of 13,000 people. Center staff produce other nontechnical publications for the public, and in 1991 the center distributed about 250,000 publications and filled more than 25,000 special requests. Educational programs in water conservation and groundwater protection have been used by public school teachers and students statewide.

In recent years, center-sponsored researchers, including faculty and graduate students, have worked on a variety of water quality and land-use projects. Researchers have been fine-tuning methods of encouraging soil bacteria to use their natural ability to eat a broad spectrum of toxic groundwater contaminants. Biodegradation of groundwater contaminants appears to be not only the most effective but the cheapest way to clean up groundwater. For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates it saved more than $300,000 of state taxpayers' money by using hungry bacteria in a recent cleanup of a home heating oil spill.

Other researchers have studied and developed improved farming methods to reduce pesticide and nitrate contamination of groundwater and streams from croplands.

Virginians who can't hook up to municipal sewage treatment systems and can't get their soil to perk for septic systems are being helped by center-sponsored research on alternative wastewater disposal systems. Center researchers have been investigating ways to help homeowners and state agency personnel to maintain and regulate the systems to protect the quality of the streams that receive the wastewater. Another recent project involved determining ways water treatment plants in Virginia can finance treatment upgrades to comply with federal regulations and to provide safe drinking water to millions of state residents.

Scientific research alone won't enable us to protect Virginia's waters. To make intelligent decisions, legislators, state agency personnel, and the voters they serve must be informed about current research, technology, regulations, and issues affecting state water resources. Aside from its monthly newsletter, the center's recent publications include nontechnical information about changing federal wetlands regulations, the debate in Virginia over how to finance Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, the risks and costs of lead in drinking water, the financial status of state wastewater treatment plants, what drinking water contaminants are, and how to test for them. Education programs about protecting groundwater and the workings of water treatment plants have been made available to secondary school teachers throughout the state. With funding from the Clean Water Foundation, center staff created a 1992 "Year of Clean Water Calendar" containing hundreds of useful facts about the nation's water resources.

The center's annual Virginia Water Resources Conference has provided a forum for hundreds of state water resources professionals and lay people to exchange ideas and information, and three national pesticide conferences have attracted researchers and regulators from across the United States and several foreign countries.

Virginia Tech directs reforestation program in Senegal

If the west African nation of Senegal seems greener this year, Virginia Tech has a lot to do with it. The people of Senegal have planted more than a million trees in a project administered by the Virginia Tech Office of International Research and Development.

Since the early 1960s, Senegal has lost more than 30 percent of its natural forest to drought, increasing population, mismanagement of soil and plant resources, and encroaching desert. Trees are needed for their many benefits, such as soil stabilization, protection of crops, forage for animals, fruits, and other wood products.

In addition, more wood is needed, both for energy and for wood products. Wood supplies almost two-thirds of the country's total energy as firewood and charcoal. The current wood production just meets these fuel needs, but the demand is rising faster than supply. Also, 85 precent of wood for construction, furniture, and other products is imported.

Only by planting and protecting millions of trees can these destructive trends be stopped and the needs be met. Therefore, in 1988 the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) signed an agreement with the government of Senegal creating the Senegal Reforestation Project, a seven-year, $10-million program. This natural resource management project is a joint venture between the South-East Consortium for International Development and Louis Berger International Inc., with Virginia Tech providing much of the needed administrative, training, and technical assistance.

Based in Dakar, the project is divided into five components. The matching grant program stimulates the establishment of nurseries by sharing costs with individuals and communities who undertake tree planting. The roadside planting program provides financial and technical assistance to citizen groups for plantings along roadways. The private sector component encourages investment by private enterprise in forestry activities. Studies have been conducted on farmers' motivations, forestry products, and potential and existing markets. In the training component, a Virginia Tech specialist in Extension techniques has been instrumental in developing training materials for forestry agents, and many upper-level civil servants have visited the Blacksburg campus and nearby national forests. Three Senegalese forest rangers have enrolled in Virginia Tech's master's program in forestry. Finally, the media component is attempting through the national media to raise the public's consciousness of the importance of reforestation, and a Virginia Tech team helped establish a media center at the project office in Dakar for the production of broadcast and training materials.

Although the full effect of this project will not be felt for many years, it is already viewed as successful, and many Senegalese citizens are becoming aware that reforestation is critical to the economic, social, and political development of the country.

John Cairns: Healer of injured ecosystems

University Distinguished Professor of environmental biology John Cairns Jr. specializes in eco-toxicity, but he puts it more simply.

"I'm studying injured ecosystems-the way a doctor studies diseases-and how to heal them," he says. "I have this hangup that what I do should be useful."

Cairns, who heads the University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials Studies at Virginia Tech, has made scores of useful contributions, including a multi-species toxicity test used by scholars around the world and a system of measuring fish respiration that can be used to quickly determine the toxic levels of industrial effluents.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received the Life Achievement Award in Science from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Science Museum of Virginia. At last count he's raised more than $10 million in grant money and published 444 scientific papers, 35 books, 191 book chapters, and 253 abstracts, many composed and dictated while Cairns was tramping through the woods doing on-site research.

Cairns has concentrated on five main research areas: protozoan community dynamics, toxicity testing and thermal effects, rapid biological information systems, recovery and restoration of damaged ecosystems, and hazard evaluation. Some of his work is what scientists refer to as reactive pollution methods, measuring the damage that has already been done. He also has devised predictive methods, including the fish respiration quality control system, that prevent waterways from becoming polluted. The system gives out information immediately, a little like an intensive-care ward. Fish trapped in underwater containers are wired to a device similar to an electrocardiograph. Any change in the fish's heart or respiratory rate sets off a computer-rigged alarm, and scientists can collect and analyze the water.

"Some pollutants will cause a reduced heart rate and breathing and others will cause an increase," Cairns says. "It's like the canary in the mine giving you an early warning that something toxic is in the stream."

Cairns' work is not only being used to protect the environment, in some countries a modified version of the system is being used to monitor the public water supplies for terrorist contamination.

"It's depressing to be in this field if all you do is measure the harm done to ecosystems," he says. "My students are very enthusiastic-and so am I-about being able to fix up the damage again. It's an upper because you're fixing up Mother Earth."

Once is not enough in mining counties

C.B. Slemp is excited about prospects for a project to re-mine old surface coal mines in an effort to extract more minerals and at the same time improve the surrounding environment.

"It would help correct the mining mistakes made prior to 1977" when operators simply shoved parts of a mountain over the side with no regard for the environment, and then grabbed only the easily accessible coal, Slemp says. The process was wasteful and left thousands of acres of beautiful vistas badly scarred. The project, which still is in its formative stages, could involve universities from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee, as well as Virginia Tech.

If the re-mining project eventually fulfills its goals, it will be one more victory for the Appalachia coal-mining region and the Powell River Project, a 12-year-old marriage of industry, governmental agencies, and the academic community. Powell River's efforts to spur economic growth while promoting more environmentally sound ways of operating have gained it national recognition and respect. Slemp has been director of the project for the past 10 years.

"The environment has been one of the foremost topics since we started," Slemp says. How we make soil that will grow trees and create the best piece of land out of that mined land is our major concern, he says.

The Powell River Project started in 1980 as the Penn Virginia Project, fueled by funding and a 1,700-acre site at the head of the Powell River provided by Penn Virginia Resources Corp. The project's early focus was more narrow than it is today, emphasizing research aimed at reclamation and use of mined lands. There is plenty to work with. More than 80,000 acres of the 1 million acres in Virginia's seven coal counties have been disturbed by mining.

Although the showcase work at the project still emphasizes land reclamation, environmental, and land-use problems, researchers have since moved into a wide range of efforts, including education to spread research results and attempts to improve the quality of life in the coalfields.

The project sponsors programs in the following areas: land reclamation and reclaimed land use; environmental protection; economic development; and quality of life, but the categories overlap and advances in one area can affect others. For instance, a reforestation project helps mining companies meet reclamation regulations while creating valuable timber income resources for the future. Environmentally, the trees improve the quality of the soil and the look of the land.

Some of the experiments also affect the quality of water. Improving the contour of surface mined land, for instance, can facilitate water flow and control pollution. In another program, project researchers are working to see if man-made wetlands can be used to filter and treat acidic discharges from coal mining. At least three constructed wetlands are in use as part of the experiment.

The Powell River Project has focused primarily on Southwest Virginia, but future scope likely is to expand to a cooperative regional university concept taking in some 40 counties in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Slemp says the project also must continue to work with local officials to make them think ahead about their future needs so that a tract of land can be mined with that need in mind. "It's too expensive to go back and change it once it's done."

Mapping in the green

The computer lab on one of Blacksburg's back streets seems worlds away from the Chesapeake Bay, but they are as indelibly linked as the network of Eastern Virginia streams and rivers on the wall maps.

Thanks to VirGIS (Virginia Geographic Information System) at Virginia Tech's Information Support Systems Laboratory, the Virginia Department of Soil and Water Conservation (DSWC) knows where to spend its money to stem the flow of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides into the Chesapeake Bay. In 1983, when a landmark EPA study noted the declining resources of the Chesapeake Bay, the governors of the surrounding states and District of Columbia drafted initiatives for their part in a bay cleanup. In Virginia the Division of Soil and Water Conservation was given responsibility for reducing nutrient and chemical runoff from farms that reaches the bay. One way was to encourage farmers to adopt land-management strategies developed by Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But, which farms?

What was needed was a geographic information system-data on soils, watersheds, land use, elevations-loaded into a computer, and programming that would allow the computer to identify existing and potential erosion and pollution areas. With that information, the DSWC staff could set priorities for which farms to help. In 1985, DSWC contracted with Virginia Tech's agricultural engineering department to implement a geographic information system (GIS) for the first of many drainage basins.

Faculty and staff members in the VirGIS project, now located in a house on Faculty Street, painstakingly field checked, corrected, and improved data from such sources as county soil surveys and high-altitude infrared photography. They fed a computerized database details from more than 10 million acres that shed water into the bay. The result is elaborate and colorful maps that vividly indicate highly erodible lands, and all manner of land uses. Many other uses are developing for the database, such as modeling water runoff or planning for land use, according to Vernon Shanholtz, agricultural engineer and head of the VirGIS lab. Programs can contain information such as wildlife habitats, locations of flood hazard zones, shoreline erosion, and environmentally sensitive areas. They contain everything from bald eagle nests to wetlands to potentially erodible sites. This information can be used to evaluate site plans for developers and to protect natural resource areas.

"We have projects monitoring the effects of various land management practices, pesticide management, and phosphorus and nitrogen runoff," Shanholtz says. "This is a fairly comprehensive system for environmental planning, certainly one of the largest in the country." The laboratory supports itself through contract work with outside agencies and municipalities.

Center helps state save energy

How energy is used is of major interest to the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) at Virginia Tech. So when it was determined that Virginia's low-income housing was so poorly insulated and in such bad disrepair that the average energy loss was higher than Minnesota's, the center embarked on a study to determine whether Virginia's weatherization program might be enhanced by borrowing techniques from Northern states.

The study, which received a Virginia Energy Award last year, has led to a complete revision of Virginia's weatherization standards for low-income housing. Using new measures such as high-density blown sidewall insulation and advanced air-sealing techniques, weatherization crews in a pilot program were able to obtain median savings of 24 percent in the annual space heating costs of single-family homes. The former program, which concentrated on storm window installation, caulking, and weatherstripping, had obtained an average savings of 10 percent.

At the Virginia Weatherization Program's average rate of 4,000 homes a year, it doesn't take long for the differential to translate into big savings of energy resources.

This and other practical studies conducted by the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research underscore its mission as a public service research center. Established by the Virginia General Assembly in 1977, the center has three purposes: to coordinate coal and energy research programs statewide, to disseminate energy-related research information throughout the commonwealth through various publications, and to conduct research on coal and energy issues.

Other recent research projects include a study of the potential for a non-utility power industry to create jobs in the coalfields, research assessing the prospects for coalfield methane resources, a two-year study focused on the reclamation of abandoned minelands by active coal mining operations, and a General Assembly-mandated feasibility study of a new electrical transmission line from the coalfields to the Virginia Power system.

The center also just completed the most comprehensive assessment ever of Virginia's energy situation. The report includes in-depth descriptions of state trends in the production, distribution, and consumption of coal electricity, natural gas, and petroleum products, as well as solar and other renewable energy.

In addition to specific information and research, the center has offered special analyses, information, and presentations on request to Virginia state agencies and commissions.

Yet this center, which seeks to help Virginia save energy by promoting its more efficient use, is among the hardest hit by recent state budget cuts. The research division has absorbed much of budgetary shortfall, which for the VCCER has meant budget cuts of 20 percent over three years. Sponsored research projects bring in the remainder of the funds. In a recent evaluation under State Council of Higher Education guidelines, the center was recognized for "making significant contributions to the commonwealth with very meager resources."

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 3, Spring 1992


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