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Your Environment. Your Health.

Wetterhahn Awardee Dr. Laura Senier Turns Attention to Schools

Superfund Research Program

Former Superfund Research Program (SRP) Trainee and Wetterhahn Award winner Dr. Laura Senier recently paid a visit to NIEHS to discuss the community-based outreach she participated in under the auspices of Brown University's SRP grant. Dr. Senier received her Ph.D. in 2009 from Brown University, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She calls herself the "non-traditional Wetterhahn Award winner," and is the first social scientist to receive the award in its 11-year history. She has substantial experience working with environmental justice issues and in environmental health activism, but applies her social science training to understand the barriers that scientists face when they try to collaborate with regulatory officials and community organizations to bring about change. Her approach to outreach work is demonstrated by her work with the Brown University SRP Outreach Core, which investigated the siting of Providence, RI, public schools near toxic waste sites.

Inappropriate school siting is a nation-wide problem that disproportionately impacts poor communities and communities of color. The first Providence-area school brought to Brown's attention was an elementary/middle school that was built in 1999 atop a former city dump. The site was known to be contaminated with lead, arsenic, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and mercury. Parents of students and nearby residents filed a civil action lawsuit, citing environmental racism (78% of the student body is nonwhite), not considering environmental equity, and inadequate public notice. Despite this history, the city then built a middle school atop another dump in 2000, and in 2005, the city selected an industrial site for a new high school. Half the neighboring community is below the federal poverty limit, and more than 90% of the residents are nonwhite.

The site for the proposed high school was the old Gorham silver factory. Once America's premier silver manufacturer, the factory closed in 1986. The land went through several owners before being seized by the City of Providence in 1992 for unpaid taxes. The 37-acre lot was subdivided into 4 parcels, one of which became the proposed home of the school. The site is heavily contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a slag heap containing lead and copper, and ground- and surface-water contamination of PCE and TCE.

Dr. Senier argues that the Brown SRP team was successful because they carefully balanced the needs of the multiple stakeholders concerned about contamination around the site: the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, legal advocacy groups, community-based environmental justice organizations, and the surrounding community. The Brown SRP dedicated substantial resources to this problem through both the Community Outreach Core and the Research Translation Core. Dr. Senier and her colleagues in Brown's Outreach core educated the community about the site, then helped the residents organize to protest the construction of the school. They worked in middle school classrooms, teaching middle school students about environmental justice and public speaking so they could take their concerns to the city and the school board. While they were engaging with community stakeholders on these projects, Brown faculty were working through the Research Translation Core to better characterize potential for vapor intrusion at the site. Dr. Senier points out that because Brown SRP had relationships with all stakeholders, "we were also able to bring stakeholders together by convening a statewide panel to develop new guidelines for brownfield redevelopment that mandate community involvement in the future, to prevent situations like this from occurring in the future."

Dr. Senier's talk showed how the SRP can be an effective vehicle for bringing together many stakeholders who are concerned about environmental public health and environmental justice.

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