SC State Research Team Documents Green Technology Value for Pollution Cleanup at Savannah River Site

Monday, September 27, 2010

InternsWhen nature works to break down manmade pollution, not only are tax dollars saved, but ecosystems are preserved from impacts of constructed cleanup operations. This breaking down of pollution by nature’s bacteria and plants is called natural attenuation and is one form of green technology that an SC State University research team has determined will assist with the cleanup efforts at the US Department of Energy (DOE) Savannah River Site (SRS).  Dr. John B. Williams, professor of biological sciences at SC State University,  and his team of SC State student interns including Stephanie Roach, Charmaine Wells, Eric Foxworth and Jeremy Clayborn, reported their findings to officials recently at SRS and were commended for their efforts. Research activities by Williams’ interns began in early June and concluded in August. 

Findings by this SC State research team have documented the actions of natural attenuation in cleaning up a plume containing chlorinated solvents from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -designated Super Fund Site at SRS. This is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites.  Williams and his students may be one of the few undergraduate research teams in the country approved for monitoring Super Fund Site cleanup.

The SC State research team’s topmost priority during this monitoring is safety. Williams has appreciated this safety emphasis by SRS and how his student interns have benefited from required safety training. Their efforts included working deep within a swamp-forest and drilling holes into swamp and stream sediments to detect water movements, which detects the form of effluent in water or emissions in air and chemistry.  Their chemical analyses helped to determine the success of natural conditions for assisting the SRS cleanup.

During the Super Fund Site Cleanup, groundwater contamination from two clear non-flammable liquids, perchloroethylene (PERC) and trichloroethylene (TCE) is a common pollution problem worldwide.  In the United States alone, TCE was present at 852 of the 1,416 sites proposed for the EPA National Priorities List of cleanup sites.  At the Savannah River Site, PCE and TCE were used in large quantities during its construction and plant operations. SRS activities over the years disposed of much PCE and TCE into large, unlined excavations. Disposal of much PCE and TCE was placed into unlined pits along with other chemicals, metals and pesticides. SRS engineered remediation actions near the plume source included soil vapor extraction of volatile organic compounds and soil excavation and removal.  For the more distant fringes of the plume, natural attenuation was proposed as a possible remediation action. Williams and his interns have been monitoring this activity and have documented some successful degradation of PCE to a third stage dechlorinated product called vinyl chloride. Our results will help SRS determine plume movements and the relative effectiveness of natural attenuation in reducing contaminant loads into SRS streams,” says Williams.


Student interns gained valuable real-world professional training that will better prepare them for future employment. Their hands-on environmental sampling experiences, combined with their exposure to working as a team in the field, will make them strong candidates for graduate studies and the professional workforce.  “Teamwork played an integral role in this internship because we had to work together on various projects in the field. This instilled friendships and made the rigorous tasks easier to overcome,” said Stephanie Roach.   During summer research, students also learned the importance of team work. “Without teamwork, we would not be able to get many tasks done,” said Eric Foxworth of Marion, S.C.

Other students gained skillful tactics, utilizing their mental and physical abilities. Jeremy Clayborn, a native of Chicago, Ill., says “the work experience strengthened my mental and physical abilities through productive, strenuous labor.” Charmaine Wells of Savannah, Ga. shares that same sentiment. “The SRS internship has improved my scientific skills dramatically.  I am now well aware of their goals and missions and I greatly respect all of their work and the great opportunity they have given us,” said Wells.   

For additional information about this research effort, contact Dr. John B. Williams at (803)536-8518.