Student monitors environmental impact at West Valley

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Brittni Cumberland

Senior Brittni Cumberland had an intense internship this summer with the WesternNew York Nuclear Service Center near West Valley, N.Y.

The environmental studies major from Effort worked with the New YorkState Energy Research and Development Authority.

            She spent her summer monitoring the environmental impact of radioactive wastes left over from the area's history with a nuclear reprocessing facility run by Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. from 1966 to 1975.

            The purpose of the facility was to extract for reuse uranium, plutonium and thorium from spent nuclear fuel, which is fuel already used in a nuclear reactor, in this case derived mainly from federal weapons facilities. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, at the time, “West Valley also served as a disposal site for a variety of radioactive wastes.”

            During her internship, Cumberland was assigned to help monitor long-term and short-term trends in the State Licensed Disposal Area. She “analyzed the leachate levels of 14 disposal trenches as well as surrounding groundwater wells” and also helped “project future trends of each location.”

             When Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. closed down in 1975, significant radioactive contamination remained, namely, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in 2008, “multiple buildings, lagoons, disposal areas, contaminated soil, 600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste, and a still-migrating plume of radioactive groundwater.”

            Recent cleanup and containment efforts are on track. For example, the liquid wastes cited in the 2008 report have been solidified in glass and encased in stainless steel. Nevertheless, close and careful monitoring, like the work Cumberland did this summer, remains essential.

            “I worked with the staff geologists to help introduce a new Geographic Information System mapping project,” she said. “This project mapped groundwater elevation levels in reference to ground surface elevation.

            “I also worked on the calibration of a flow monitor and developed a 10-step quick guide procedure for the next person to deploy the flow monitor.” The flow monitor Cumberland refers to will be used in a stream channel to measure water velocity, level and temperature.

“It will be useful to see the measurements taken during each season and during flooding events. It can help with erosion prevention,” she said.

            In addition to monitoring, the team at West Valley is actively working on containment. “I worked with the staff civil engineer and helped on a nationwide permit application to the Army Corp of Engineers for maintenance work on a retaining wall within a wetland area.”

            Cumberland appreciates the potential for global impact in her field of study. “Environmental issues are a global concern,” she says.

             Knowing that the proximity of the West Valley site presented an opportunity to work on far-reaching environmental issues, Cumberland contacted the director of the Energy Research and Development Authority at West Valley and sent her resume and transcripts. She then went to meet with project members in person. The authority had to request permission for an intern from their corporate office in Albany.

            During the academic year, Cumberland works on a project in the biology department at Pitt-Bradford, under the supervision of Dr. Denise Piechnik, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Matthew Kropf, director of the ARG/Harry R. Halloran Jr. Energy Institute.

She is assisting with a new STEM Sense Project, “which incorporates Arduino micro-controller sensors [to test levels of carbon dioxide, soil moisture, acidity and more], into lab experiments.” This sort of experience made her a well-prepared internship candidate.

            “Pitt-Bradford has given me the tools to conduct independent research,” she said.  This knowledge has paid off. At the end of her internship this summer, Cumberland presented her report on the State Licensed Disposal Area to the authority.

            “I am glad that I put myself out there and contacted the director,” she said. “I am extremely grateful to have learned so much this summer from the entire staff.”

            Like many students at Pitt-Bradford, Cumberland is also actively engaged in various activities both on campus and in the community. She is on the volleyball team, works at the front desk of the YMCA of the Twin Tiers in Bradford, and, this fall, she will be a resident advisor.

            This fall semester, she will use the experience she gained this summer to assist a team of graduate students from Princeton University who are monitoring the environmental impact of Marcellus natural gas wells in the area. The graduate students come quarterly to take measurements, but need local students to help monitor in the interim periods.

            Engaging students from several departments at Pitt-Bradford, including environmental studies, energy science and technology, this project is an example of one of several multidisciplinary research opportunities available on campus. 

            Upon graduating Pitt-Bradford, Cumberland plans to apply to the State University Of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She wants to study for a Master of Professional Studies in environmental management.