Using Science to Make an Impact

A new program called the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) is helping local governments with a variety of sustainability challenges.

ARTICLE | Apr 27, 2017
Photo: Colebrook, New Hampshire's closed landfill with polluted water.

By Laura Allen, Bob Hart, ICMA-CM, and Becky Merrow

ICMA has partnered with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) on a new program called the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX). AGU's TEX and ICMA are matching local governments with volunteer geoscientists who can advise leaders on a multitude of resilience, sustainability, and pollution-related challenges. Among the types of projects already undertaken by TEX are:

• Standardizing data acquisition and delivery and producing an uncertainty analysis for a more streamlined greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

• Closing several auto salvage yards and other industrial uses in order to restore a stream segment, thereby improving the quality of the drinking water for 500,000 people.

• Identifying flood-related vulnerabilities in order to develop a food warehousing and distribution network and assessing how to keep food available in severe weather.

• Determining how many extreme heat days can be expected in the future and identifying which neighborhoods will be affected.

ICMA members, including the three of us, have partnered with TEX to use science to solve problems in our jurisdictions, and this article describes what is happening in our communities as of March 2017.

Groundwater Pollution

Colebrook, New Hampshire (population 2,301), is a remote village located at the northern tip of New Hampshire, with no university or other scientifically based think tank or body of experts in the area.

The town has a closed landfill with contaminant 1,4-dioxane in the groundwater that exceeds ambient groundwater quality standards. This polluted groundwater has left the property boundary and is presently on the land of an abutter.

The plume has resulted in groundwater degradation in the vicinity of Lime Pond, located just across the municipal boundary in Columbia, New Hampshire. This water body is an extraordinary example of a marl pond where calcium is a significant component of the surrounding bedrock. The pond's bottom holds six feet of nearly pure white marl, made up largely of shells of freshwater mollusks known as cyclas and planorbis that still live in the pond.

The bedrock surrounding the pond is an impure gray and blue limestone from which the calcium that defines the pond has leached during the past 10,000 years.

To protect the pond, the town was required to install an extraction system to collect groundwater, which is then trucked across town to the wastewater treatment system.

The town treats the groundwater as it does raw waste and discharges it into the Connecticut River. The wastewater is treated with a system of aerators, SolarBees (mixers), and ultraviolet light. Locally, this system is referred to as a "pump and dump" method.

The town wants to find a cost-effective way to treat the groundwater in place at the landfill. In 2016, a company proposed a pilot project to treat the extracted water on site with a proprietary zeolite filtration media.

It recommended that the zeolite receive an ionic charge. Initial bench trials did produce some reduced levels of 1,4-dioxane, but it was determined that the reduced levels were not significant enough to move forward with a full field trial.

The town hopes that collaboration with a TEX scientist will protect Lime Pond and the environment in general. Local leaders hope to discontinue the "pump and dump" approach and to remediate the 1,4-dioxane groundwater in place at the landfill.

Recreational Opportunities

Berlin, Maryland (population 4,562), purchased a 60-acre property in 2016 that contains a former chicken processing plant and is in the process of converting it into a multiuse public space for the benefit of Berlin residents and guests.

The town completed its first strategic plan in 2015 (http://berlinmd.gov/berlin-approves-fy-2016-2018-strategic-plan). This intense, community-focused process resulted in five priorities that are guiding the town's work for the next several years. The property was purchased to address the need for additional recreational opportunities identified through the strategic planning process.

The town sought to understand the potential best uses for the property, as well as the potential costs and steps involved in achieving its goal. Work with a consultant helped shape the conceptual plan for the property, which focuses on these six key factors:

• Create a common ground for the residents that will unite various neighborhoods.

• Design the park to complement, not compete, with Berlin's downtown and existing parks.

• Establish a multimodal transportation system linking the park to all neighborhoods.

• Ensure financial sustainability.

• Create synergy between sustainability and resilience.

• Upgrade the ponds on the property to make them the design focal point.

Berlin has a long history of promoting environmental sustainability, beginning with initiating mandatory recycling in 1992. In 2009, it established Grow Berlin Green, a multiyear campaign to establish Berlin and the surrounding area as a model community for participatory environmental protection, conservation, and smart growth policy and practice. In 2012, Berlin was recognized as the first sustainable Maryland certified community.

Environmental studies of the property found E. coli in the ponds. Berlin is working to remediate the ponds and design them in a way that minimizes E. coli and any other bacteria, thereby reducing health risk and maintenance costs.

By partnering with TEX, Berlin connected with Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health science at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research centers around environmental issues related to the poultry industry in the Delmarva Peninsula, including parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

The partnership with TEX gives Berlin access to an expert to test for additional bacteria at no additional cost, and it also is making it easier to make this a sustainable project.

Berlin is working with Dr. Silbergeld and engineers at EA Science and Technology to test the sediment in the ponds under this schedule: Testing in spring 2017 and cost estimating and planning in summer 2017.

Environmental Restoration

Kennedale, Texas (population 8,000), is a first-tier suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. Residents enjoy the relaxation of living in a small town, while being just minutes from the world-class shopping and entertainment offered by the larger cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Village Creek, one of the few free-flowing creeks in Texas, runs through the western part of the city, and people are struck by the quality of the natural habitat, particularly for an urban area. The creek feeds into Lake Arlington, which is a drinking water supply for more than 500,000 people.

It also is within the Trinity River watershed, which extends to the Gulf of Mexico more than 270 miles away, and is why the water-quality and flood-control issues that have emerged in recent years are critical.

Specifically, in 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed it as "impaired" because of the high levels of E. coli. In addition, heavy metal contamination is suspected around the Kennedale portions of the creek. Compounding the situation is the basin's tendency to flood every few years.

Development of the area occurred long before the floodplain and floodway were annexed into Kennedale's corporate limits. Since annexation in 2000, Village Creek has been identified in the city's strategic plan and the regional vision plan as a desirable place for an eco-restoration.

The impediments to the restoration include six auto salvage yards, a mobile home park, several single-family homes, multiple businesses, and approximately 164 septic systems.

The city has employed a multipronged approach to identify barriers and obstacles to a comprehensive cleanup. One major effort was securing inclusion in a Section 205 Flood Control Study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While the study is not yet complete, the initial determination is that it will not meet the minimum benefit cost ratio of 1.0, due to the large cost of relocating the salvage yards without any benefit as no structures exist that are insured for flood losses.

Concurrent with that effort, the city contracted with the engineering department from the University of Texas at Arlington to conduct sediment and water-quality testing. Test results did not find a "smoking gun" to proceed on the environmental front, but they did provide for the inclusion of Village Creek in a three-year regional EPA Section 319 water-quality, baseline study with the Trinity River Authority and the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington.

The city appears to have these four courses of action available for restoration:

• Amortize (which Texas law permits) the uses and structures in order to protect the floodplain and floodway but not land use; however, there is no existing case law to guide the city.

• Enforce standards for water quality based on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) standards and requirements.

• Acquire the land as parkland through eminent domain proceedings.

• Acquire the land through floodplain regulations using various federally funded programs.

Given the complexity of the Village Creek environmental restoration challenge, the city sought assistance through AGU's TEX program. Through TEX, Kennedale has partnered with Alexander Sun, a research scientist for the Bureau of Economic Geology and the University of Texas at Austin, to pinpoint sources of pollution and fulfill the city's commitment to managing its portion of the watershed.

Dr. Sun specializes in analyzing water flows, identifying contamination sources, and leveraging scientific research to support on-the-ground, practical decisions about environmental challenges and water resource management.

Kennedale staff need to understand the factors driving the bacterial and metals pollution in Village Creek; however, the real challenge is translating data and models into practical, implementable solutions that fit within the expectations of the community, the region, and state and federal officials.

After meeting with Dr. Sun, the city is confident that his experience with TCEQ and EPA will yield the analytical insight the city council and staff need to solve this hugely complex project.

Laura Allen, ICMA-CM, is town administrator, Berlin, Maryland (lallen@berlinmd.gov); Bob Hart, ICMA-CM, is city manager, Corinth, Texas, and was city manager of Kennedale, Texas (bob.hart@cityofcorinth.com); and Becky Merrow is town manager, Colebrook, New Hampshire (b-merrow@myfairpoint.net).

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