Environmental Sciences Ph.D. Program

Wright State environmental scientist receives $900,000 grant to help clean up polluted American harbors

photo of allen burton

Most of the harbors in America are in trouble. The culprit is pollution. These seaports have been described as the largest and most poorly regulated sources of urban pollution in the country.

One of the primary obstacles to correcting this problem is a lack of accurate and cost- effective ways to measure the pollution that is present to determine if clean-up is needed.

“The clean-up costs for these harbors and large rivers can be staggering, costing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars per site,” said Allen Burton, Ph.D., a professor of environmental sciences at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “Given these costs, we have to find better ways to determine what does and does not need to be cleaned up.”

Burton, an expert on the pollution of aquatic systems, has received an innovative $900,000 grant to help develop a solution for this environmental dilemma. He said virtually every harbor in America has pollution problems. “For an example nearby, there are 42 federally designated areas of concern along the Great Lakes, and 41 of these involve harbors in such locations as Chicago, Toledo and Cleveland,” he explained. “Numerous rivers and streams with contaminants from agriculture, industry and development drain into these harbors. These toxic wastes become a pollution source, along with emissions from ships and other sources from the maritime trade.

“Our goal is to develop a quick, risk assessment monitoring tool for harbors where contaminated sediments are a common problem,” said Burton, who chairs the university’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. His research over the last 25 years has focused on developing effective methods for identifying ecological effects and contamination in aquatic systems.

“The unique aspect of our grant is that this project will provide the first-ever instrumentation that closely links contaminant exposures (like mercury, arsenic, pesticides, PCBs) with adverse effects on fish and other aquatic life,” he said.

Burton and his collaborators will achieve this by dropping sensor probes into the bottom of the harbor to record data and collect water samples. The contaminants in the sediment will be measured and the biological exposures and effects will be calculated. These findings then will be integrated into a Geographic Information System to provide statistically based rankings of the likely dominant physical and chemical contaminants across the site.

“The two major contributions of this research will be (1) development of an integrated capability to assess sites for ecological risk and recovery using accurate exposure and effects data and (2) a straightforward approach to quantitatively measure and graphically demonstrate displays of sediment quality and the dominant contaminant relationships with ecological risk,” he said.

This will allow site managers, regulators and stakeholders to better understand whether the site is improving or which areas need to be cleaned up.

Burton said the findings his research team develops may then become a model for use nationwide by three federal agencies, the Department of Defense, Department of the Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Our initial development work will be in San Diego harbor, with follow-up work in another west or east coast harbor that is known to be contaminated,” he said. “The findings will be applicable to all the major harbors in the U.S., such as New York, Houston, Pearl Harbor and the Great Lakes.”

The Wright State research scientist is the principal investigator for the three-year project, and he will be working closely with Navy and EPA researchers.

Burton’s research work has involved visiting positions in Italy, Portugal and New Zealand. He is president of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and serves on numerous international scientific panels and committees, such as the National Research Council and EPA Science Advisory Board. He has authored more than 200 publications and received more than $7 million in research grants and contracts.

This grant was awarded through the Strategic Environmental Restoration and Demonstration Program of the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

For more details, contact Burton at allen.burton@wright.edu or (937) 775-2201.