SC State research team plays vital role in pollution monitoring at Savannah River Site

Friday, September 16, 2011

A summertime hike in shaded stream forests usually paints a relaxing picture of enjoying nature and escaping the hot South Carolina sunshine.  However, for Dr. John Williams, SC State University professor of biology, and his nine student interns, days in the swamp meant avoiding hazards like water moccasins, heat stress and chemicals from an EPA Superfund contaminant waste site, within the Savannah River Site.

Dr. Williams, right, wearing safety gear, and Mills, right, wearing brown polo shirt, with SC State student interns conduct plume remediation sampling at the Savannah River Site.  The students from l to r are: Second row – Charmaine Wells, Jarvie Robinson and Derek Best; Third row - Alton Allen, Russell Willis, Shequila Elmore, Demanti O’Bryant, David Anderson and Ray Claybrooks

Williams and his student team are working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Savannah River Site (SRS) to conduct EPA-mandated compliance monitoring of contaminant plumes flowing beneath the Superfund site.  Their work has proven valuable to SRS cleanup efforts and one official described some of their results as “worth their weight in gold.”  This SC State effort may be the only undergraduate research team in the country responsible for compliance monitoring of a Superfund site.

To tackle the project’s work, the student interns were divided into two specialty teams funded by two separate DOE grants that were awarded to SC State.  One team, led by Williams, focused on the groundwater transport of contaminants into the valley of Pen Branch stream. The second student team worked with Dr. Gary Mills, research scientist of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL), and trained with gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) analysis of contaminants in tree coring samples.

Results from Williams and his students are helping determine how well nature breaks down manmade pollution.  When this form of green technology is successful, not only are tax dollars saved, but ecosystems are preserved from impacts of constructed cleanup operations. Findings by this SC State research team have documented the actions of natural attenuation in cleaning up a plume containing chlorinated solvents from a former chemical waste pit. 

“Our results will help SRS determine plume movements and the relative effectiveness of natural attenuation in reducing contaminant loads into SRS streams,” noted Williams.


Student interns gained valuable real-world professional training that will better prepare them for future employment. The interns’ hands-on environmental 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. 

“The work we’ve been doing is very vital to the environment and has encouraged me to further my studies in environmental science,” said intern Russell Willis, an engineering major from Decatur, Ga.

”Hopefully, the training and certifications I have received can be a start and a step in the door for a future career at Savannah River Site,” said Alton Allen, an engineering major from Macon, Ga.

Further, the advanced technology training with GCMS under Mills opened student’s eyes to new career pathways.  For engineering major Derek Best, working with the high tech equipment helped connect in-class theories to field work.  “Using the GCMS required me to utilize my engineering background,” the Charleston native recalled.

Dr. Williams’ environmental remediation research has been assisting SRS cleanup operations for over twelve years.  This SC State effort has given more than six-dozen undergraduate science and engineering majors important real-world training in their career development.  Additional students whose energies made this summer successful were seniors: Jarvie Robinson, Abbeville, S.C.; Charmaine Wells, Savannah, Ga.; Raymond Claybrooks Jr., Saint Louis, Mo.; Shequila Elmore and David Anderson, Columbia, S.C. and Demanti O'Bryant, Graniteville, S.C.         

“Our project work over the years has been a win-win opportunity for DOE and represents a real value-added program to SRS.” said Williams.  “Our work simultaneously achieves two DOE goals: preparing students for the future environmental workforce; and achieving cost-effective remediation monitoring of SRS clean-up efforts.  We are also honored that DOE and the EPA would place such high confidence in our field technology and data quality.”

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