University of Rochester

Train Wreck Creates Wonderful Learning Opportunity for Students

December 5, 1996

Twenty years ago, about the time that a group of University of Rochester students in an environmental geology class were born, a train traveling near Bergen, NY, ran off its rails. One of its tank cars ruptured and spilled tons of tri-chloro-ethylene over the surrounding field. (Tri-chloro-ethylene, a degreasing agent, is not harmful; but organisms in the ground can break it down into other compounds, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen.)

Today, the students explore neighboring areas around the site of that massive spill to investigate the water flow patterns in the Western Monroe county area. These water flow patterns may yield clues about the spread pattern of the tri-chloro-ethylene plume.

The students incorporate their exploration as part of their field and laboratory work under the direction of Robert Poreda, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Andrew Hunt, a graduate student and teaching assistant.

About once a week, students go to various sites in Western Monroe county to take samples of ground water from wells and springs, and surface water from creeks. After collecting the water in vials, they record certain characteristics on the spot, such as temperature, pH and conductivity.

When the students return to the laboratory, they examine the chemical composition of the water to determine where it has traveled. The presence of certain minerals and sediment in the water indicates that the water has flowed across rocks or soil containing those same minerals, and thus give clues to the paths the water has traveled.

New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation had been working on this project and welcomed the help of Poreda and his class in 1994. The DEC provided them with access through the wells to obtain water samples for analysis. The students aided the DEC through their deductions and interpretations concerning the water system's behavior in this area. The students' work has confirmed much of what the DEC had suspected about the groundwater flow system, says Prof. Poreda.

After beginning work at Bergen and the Riga Landfill in 1994, Poreda expanded his field work to the areas north and south of the Riga Landfill. This year, students are concentrating in the northern area; eventually, Poreda hopes to reach a wider area of upstate New York, extending from the Southern Tier to Lake Ontario.

The work is teaching undergraduates technical skills, instrumentation, and is giving them experience in how to conduct an investigation and put data together, says Poreda. The site is also providing research opportunities for graduate students. A portion of the analytical work is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"I've learned a lot of things that will be used in the field of environmental science," says senior Tom Sauter of Rochester, NY, an environmental science major. "It's also nice to know that I'm working in one of the most advanced laboratories in the country, getting a chance to use some of the latest equipment that even the professionals don't have a chance to use right now."

"Hands on" experience makes a real difference in learning the material he's studying, Sauter adds. "I'm working on something I'm interested in real life rather than a subject in a text book."

"The field work makes all those lectures suddenly make sense," says senior Erin Penfold of Eugene, Oregon. "All the facts, formulas, and theories have a purpose." Also, she says, these experiences "give students like me who are unsure of what they want to do a feel for a particular career option."