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Getting their hands dirty with the Superfund site

DEPUE – Living within a Superfund site certainly has its disadvantages, but DePue students have discovered a way to transform the downfall into opportunity.

Within the last couple years, the student environmental group has proactively developed a method that encapsulates and immobilizes contaminates in soil, sediment, sludge and waste piles.

The challenge was sparked after students tested and found high levels of heavy metals in the topsoil of residential areas in DePue. The environmental group decided to begin researching materials and methods that could reduce the environmental and health risks.

Science instructor and group mentor Keith Garcia explained how students were inspired to create some sort of solution.

“Instead of sitting here being all distressed about it, we embraced it as an opportunity,” he said.

The group began investigating encapsulation methods and tested paraffin wax, polyurethane and silicon.

“The work that they engaged in was pretty technical,” Garcia said. “The time and hours spent, represents a huge body of work. It’s pretty much far above and beyond.”

The group ultimately chose to focus primarily on paraffin wax because of its relative availability and ease to work with.

“The wax is subject to abrasion … so it’s probably not a long-term solution, but it is environmentally-friendly,” Garcia said.

Students tested the wax on sludge to see whether it would be effective in a pond or lake environment, as Lake DePue is one area that holds significant amounts of sediment.

“Doing that was pretty neat to see,” Garcia said. “If we can (use the wax) in a slurry, we can basically do it with any type of soil or residual around the community.”

Students checked concentrations of slurry before and after encapsulation and found a mean reduction in all metals at 90 percent.

Juniors Servando Moreno and Adilene Gavina were among the students who created the encapsulation method.

Moreno admits his involvement in the project has advanced his knowledge in all areas of science, as Gavina explained working hands-on instead of being lectured in a classroom setting made the project memorable.

“I get more out of doing stuff rather than just sitting in class,” she said.

On April 5, Moreno, Gavina and sophomore Jacob Aden will represent DePue as they present the project results to the Illinois Lake Management Association at Illinois State University.

Garcia explained how the opportunity is great exposure for the school district and a great experience for him and students.

“It’s always nice to be involved in events like this and network with different people,” he said. “It’s part of a larger vision that we have in terms of moving our science program in a specific direction.”

Garcia believes it’s important people understand exposure risks within a Superfund site.

“There’s an environmental risk, and there is the human health risk, as well. The more educated people are, it serves as a motivator, and maybe it will help move Superfund a little quicker if we get more people engaged,” he said.

Principal Dave Higgs explained how the work and experience involved in this type of project will follow students when they leave DePue and endeavors in their future careers.

“My excitement is for these student in that they have an opportunity that’s going to impact their future because colleges and universities will look at things like this,” he said. 

Comment on this story at www.bcrnews.com.

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