Tracking and treating toxic waste in urban neighborhoods

December 27, 2001

Abandoned factories and contaminated soil can stall efforts to revive blighted urban neighborhoods. That's because city officials, developers and nearby residents often share common concerns: Is it safe to rebuild here? Will workers and residents become ill from toxic materials that escape into the air and water supplies?

A new research center, led by engineers and scientists at The Johns Hopkins University, plans to address these fears by creating new tools to gauge risks associated with hazardous waste sites and by developing new ways to clean up harmful pollutants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a five-year $5.2 million grant to launch this new Center for Hazardous Substances in Urban Environments, based at Johns Hopkins. The funds will support research and allow center participants to provide technical help to community groups, state, municipal and local environmental regulators and industry representatives in the Northeast. Researchers from four other institutions ÈÎthe University of Maryland, Morgan State University, the University of Connecticut and the New Jersey Institute of Technology ÈÎwill participate in the new center and share in the EPA grant.

"Before we applied for this grant, we asked regional EPA officials about the most serious challenges they faced," said Ed Bouwer, a Johns Hopkins professor of geography and environmental engineering who serves as the center's director. "One of the top issues they mentioned was urban livability ÈÎmaking sure that people in cities have air, water and soil that will not expose them to toxic substances. The other big issue was brownfields ÈÎabandoned lots and buildings that may contain hazardous materials. If you can redevelop these properties, you can create jobs and improve the tax base. So the cities and states have an economic incentive to promote new construction on the brownfields if the environmental concerns can be addressed."

That's where the new center comes in. Bouwer and his colleagues are developing new tests and computer models to identify chemicals that are present on blighted sites and determine whether they are spreading away from the sites through rainfall runoff or aboard windswept dust particles. These new tracking methods should help local officials, developers and community leaders decide on the best way to remove or neutralize the hazardous wastes. In some cases, the researchers may conclude that the Earth's natural self-cleansing process will eliminate the hazard if the property is merely left alone for a specified period of time.

"We're creating tools to help assess these waste sites, so that we can determine how much of a problem really exists at each one," Bouwer said. "Determining the relative risks will help us decide the best way to manage that site."

Under the auspices of the center, Johns Hopkins faculty members are pursuing four new research projects:

* Marc Parlange, professor of geography and environmental engineering, is leading a team that will use LIDAR, a variation of radar that uses light instead of radio waves, to identify airborne pollutants and track their movement through an urban atmosphere.

* Bouwer and Bill Ball, professor of geography and environmental engineering, are developing a method to determine how quickly buried pollutants move through the soil as a result of rainfall infiltration and groundwater flow.

* Alan Stone and Charles O'Melia, professors of geography and environmental engineering, are developing a new test to measure the toxicity and mobility of chromium at a waste site.

* Lynn Roberts, associate professor of geography and environmental engineering, and Howard Fairbrother, assistant professor of chemistry, are devising a new filter that can turn toxic vapors vacuumed out of a waste site into a harmless mixture of salt, water and carbon dioxide.

The center will devote 30 percent of its budget to outreach activities, providing information to the regulators, consultants and citizens who will help decide the future of urban hazardous waste sites. In his role as associate director of the new center, Hedy Alavi, a geography and environmental engineering lecturer, will supervise the outreach program.
Color images of lab research and center administrators available; contact Phil Sneiderman.

Related Links:
Center for Hazardous Substances in Urban Environments:
Johns Hopkins Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering:

EPA Grant Announcement:

3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 / Fax (410) 516-5251

Johns Hopkins University

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