Fragility and Resilience – Environmental Remediation as a Community Challenge

Brad Geismar, 2018 TEX Community Science Fellow for Colebrook, N.H.

Located in northern New Hampshire close to the Canadian border, Colebrook, N.H. is a small town like many New England towns. Many of the town’s residents have ties to the community and its beautiful outdoor spaces that span generations.

Unlike other small New England towns, however, the Town of Colebrook is currently engaged in a decade-spanning effort to remediate 1,4-dioxane contamination of its municipal landfill. The project has already cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars and over the years Colebrook has hired several environmental remediation companies to help assess and address the issue.

The Town of Colebrook partnered with TEX to bring volunteer scientists to help re-assess the current state of the landfill remediation project and evaluate whether any new remediation technologies might be viable at the landfill site. TEX Community Science Fellow Bradley Geismar reflects on the community resilience and fragility he encountered while engaging in collaborative community science to support this project:

 

Months before I arrived in Colebrook, N.H. I had a conversation that caused me to pause and reflect upon the role a scientist plays when visiting a community to help address a technical problem. The conversation occurred during a phone call I had had with David Ellerbroek, an established professional scientist consulting with Colebrook through the TEX program, and Becky Merrow, Colebrook’s Town Manager.

David and I began to focus on the particular challenge of finding a cost-effective, efficient and easy-to-operate system for remediating the 1,4-dioxane contaminated groundwater around the landfill. 1,4-Dioxane groundwater remediation is performed by ex-situ (above surface) or in-situ (below surface) systems that remove or neutralize any 1,4-dioxane within the contaminated water. 

Just as David and I were beginning to animatedly discuss the promise that a newer technique called in-situ bioremediation could hold for sites like the Colebrook landfill, Becky said something that brought David and I back to Earth. “I’m not the scientist here,” Becky began, “but how would contaminant-eating bacteria handle a New Hampshire winter?” After a moment’s pause and a wry chuckle from David, both David and I said that the bacteria probably wouldn’t find a New Hampshire winter very hospitable. We decided that, for the time being at least, we could probably take in-situ bioremediation off the list as a remediation option.

 

Finding my role

That early conversation framed the rest of my time with the project, presaging the fact that one of the most useful things I could do for the folks of Colebrook would be to act as an information assembler and filter.

Even though I held specialized expertise as a scientist, I was humbled by the knowledge base, familiarity with, and connection to the landfill site the members of the Colebrook community had accumulated over nearly a decade and a half of managing the site and generations of living in the region. I had a chance to meet with a wide range of community members. I met the town manager, members of the Board of Selectmen and many of the incredible folks who keep the town running on a day to day basis. I met the operator of the pump-and-treat remediation system currently operating at the landfill site, and the head of the Colebrook’s wastewater treatment facility. I also met a representative from the environmental remediation firm currently helping the town monitor and manage the landfill site, and a group of high school students who were learning about water resources in their environmental science class.

With each meeting, I saw how various Colebrook residents played key roles in both managing current remediation operations and planning the long-term future of the remediation site. Many of these folks understood the landfill remediation operations to a degree that would have taken me quite a lot of time to assemble on my own.

My major contribution to the project was to write a report that summarized the evolution of the landfill site, outlined emerging remediation technologies and evaluated which emerging remediation technologies might be appropriate for the site. I relied upon support from many community members to help guide me toward the information for this report, yet during my time in Colebrook, many people asked me questions and commented on how my background as a scientist must leave me well-equipped to help them choose the most effective solution to the landfill problem. Such comments, along with my experiences meeting with various community members in town, helped me realize one of the key challenges faced by small communities trying to address long-term technical challenges: The task of creating and preserving the institutional knowledge required to address a problem that spans years, and even decades.

 

Preserving knowledge

Even though the knowledge of the remediation history and process at the landfill site collectively exists within the town and many people have active access to it, I came to see that in the community context such information is rarely comprehensively held by one person and that it can easily become increasingly fractured over time. The town manager might understand that the landfill needs to be remediated and that clean-up operations will cost the taxpayers. The Board of Selectmen might know how funding for that clean-up might get allocated over time. The remediation system operator might understand the technical details of how the system operates. The wastewater treatment facility operator might know how much water from the remediation system gets brought to the facility over time.

Each of these people represents a node of information and understanding. When each node is in communication with the other nodes, comprehensive knowledge can be preserved and readily accessed. However, when these nodes are unable to consistently remain in contact with one another, the comprehensive character of the information each node contains degrades until a holistic view of the situation is lost.

 

The challenge of resilience

By working collaboratively with members of the Colebrook community, I learned how, even without a team of scientists, communities can build resilience that allows them to handle remediation challenges. In many ways, Colebrook represents a community in which the community members that represent various nodes of information communicate well and work together effectively. This ability to communicate and work together has left the town with an institutional memory of the landfill site that allows the community to remain resilient over time. 

Nevertheless, even Colebrook is far from immune to the fragility that can be caused by interruptions in communication between different members in the community. Many of the people in town who directly handle the landfill site remediation efforts are in public service positions that have the potential to change on the year rather than decade scale. Since the town faces a remediation process that has already spanned a decade and a half and is likely to persist for years to come, Colebrook will certainly have to continue to work to maintain its resilient character moving forward.

Natasha Udu-gama editor