Warwick Beacon Onine, Warwick, RI
Winning Science Project Links Airport De-Icing to Brook Pollution
by Colby Cremins May 27, 2010

AN INSPIRATION: Hendricken High School Junior Nathan Andrews won first place in the state science fair and placed fourth in the International Science and Engineering Fair two weeks ago.

Few high school juniors can say they have been given scholarships from the King of Saudi Arabia, but for Nathan Andrews that is exactly what happened.

Andrews, a student at Hendricken High School, placed fourth in the International Science and Engineering Fair held in San Jose, Calif. two weeks ago. Andrews had already won the state science fair in March for his project titled, Does T.F. Green Airport’s De-icing Affect Water Quality?

Andrews, who lives near the airport and Warwick Pond, took interest in this issue when he was doing the annual Buckeye Brook fish count last May.

“In May, Paul Earnshaw [president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition] and I were doing the fish count and he was telling me about the lower levels of fish [in the brook],” said Andrews.

Andrews said that the two also noticed an orange bacterium at the roots of plants and sediment and he wanted to look into it.

He concluded that Ethylene glycol, which makes up 60 percent of what is used to de-ice planes, was getting into the water.

“All the storm drains [at the airport] run into the water system, the catch basins don’t work because glycol dissolves into the water,” said Andrews.

Ethylene glycol, an organic compound widely used as automotive antifreeze, is toxic and ingestion can result in death.

Andrews, with the help of Earnshaw and Timothy Dean, also of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, collected specimens from six different sites within the brook and Warwick Pond. At least two of those sites had a reading of 12 parts per million (ppm) of glycol in the sediment and water. According to Andrews, there should be none.

“Glycol in the body causes kidneys to crystallize, a teaspoon is enough to kill a dog,” said Andrews.

While Andrews admits that a dog would have to drink five gallons of the water to die, he is more concerned with the bigger picture.

“This is not naturally occurring and it is toxic. So if a little fish eats it and then another fish eats that fish and so on, then a hawk eats the fish, it’s a chain reaction of events,” said Andrews.

The Clean Water Act says that industries cannot discharge water that has oxygen levels lower than 5 ppm and the airport is discharging water at 3 ppm. Andrews says that at 4 ppm fish start to get aggravated, at 3 they get “funked out” and at 1 they die within an hour.

Andrews found as propylene glycol passes through a water system, it tends to attract and extract a lot of heavy metals, especially iron, out of the environment to which it is imposed upon. There are two bacteria that are indigenous to Buckeye Brook and Warwick Pond that have become a nuisance. The first is called Leptothrix, which is an iron-oxidizing bacterium. It uses the iron as an energy source. These bacteria tend to accumulate on the roots of plants, the plants themselves, turtles and other aquatic organisms, and the bed, edges, and bottom of the pond or brook, particularly the layer of sediment containing ooze, which is also where the propylene glycol and iron tend to accumulate. After the Leptothrix strips the glycol of its iron, it oxidizes it, leaving many small iron oxide particles, also known as rust, to sink down into the water and land on the leaves of aquatic plants and roots. The higher concentration of iron in the water allows these bacteria to grow profusely and produce much iron oxide, commonly known as rust.

Over time, this lessens the amount of light the plants are receiving, lowering the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. This poses a problem for fish and other wildlife that rely on the water system’s would-be healthy water quality.

The other kind of nuisance bacteria is Sphaerotilus bacteria. This bacterium directly feeds off of the glycol itself. One of the products of its chemosynthetic process is sulfur, which causes nuisance odors. The bacteria depletes oxygen in the water and also is floating scum and filaments on the surface of the water, sometimes sinking a foot or two below the surface. This also blocks out light and lowers the dissolved oxygen levels. Both bacteria through decay and normal respiration also consume more oxygen and lower the dissolved oxygen levels in the water even further.

The fish count for the brook this year was 25,000; up from the 5,000 it was at in 2005, but significantly down from where it used to be.

“There were millions of fish back in the ’80s. People used to joke that you could walk across it without getting your boots wet,” said Andrews.

T.F. Green is not alone in their de-icing contamination problems; Andrews also found issues at Logan International Airport in Boston.

“This is not statewide; it’s global. They are using methods that are ridiculous,” said Andrews.

Andrews believes that the glycol levels are just the tip of the iceberg. If these toxins are prevalent in the water supply, he shutters to think what else may be getting in there.

After a call to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) it was revealed that the airport has an existing permit that does authorize discharges from storm drains, however many significant changes have been made to the airport since the issuance of the permit. The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) applied for a permit to address the changes and a new permit was issued by RIDEM and subsequently appealed by RIAC. After long negotiations to come to a written agreement to upgrade the facilities to collect and treat storm water contaminated with de-icing fluids, the case went to arbitration and a mediator assisted in the development of a memorandum of agreement (MOA). RIAC and DEM are currently operating under that MOA. RIAC is in the process of performing facility planning, preliminary engineering, and selection of final disposal alternatives (including negotiations with the WSA to discharge to the POTW). Once the final solution is selected, RIAC will complete construction of conveyance or treatment systems that will address de-icing fluid storm water runoff in accordance with state law and regulations.

Andrews, who went to the international event with fellow state finalist Christian Durango from Providence’s Times2 Academy, says his interest in science was sparked when he took a freshman biology class.

“It opened my eyes to see how everything is connected and the most incidental discovery can save lives,” said Andrews.

Andrews received an internship at the University of Rhode Island (URI) after placing in last year’s science fair. He used that opportunity to use the URI watershed lab and learn the techniques associated with sample collection.

“URI was the pinnacle between the watershed, the airport, the water system and the test kit,” said Andrews.

Andrews took what he had learned at URI and taught Earnshaw and Dean how to collect samples.

“I owe huge debts to Earnshaw and Dean, they went to all six sites and helped out with transportation, delineation and testing,” said Andrews.

Andrews has placed in the top 10 at the state science fair for the past three years. He has won two separate $4,000 scholarships to URI, a scholarship to Rhode Island College, $2,500 from King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia for the project with the Best Environmental Impact with Water Quality, and close to $500 in savings bonds and the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

“It’s very impressive, he is so self-motivated,” said Hendricken Principal Jay Brennan.

Andrews is not only a star in science, he is on the pep, marching, concert and parade bands, the football team, the track team and is one of the top wrestlers in the state.

“He just has this great drive that will make him very successful when he leaves Hendricken and moves on,” said Brennan.

Andrews says that he could not have accomplished all that he has without the help of his teacher Lou Ventura, the school’s science fair coordinator Kurley Way and Dr. Mark Fontaine, who runs the state science fair.

“This project is resolving social and environmental injustices and that we all need to be stewards of our environment,” said Andrews.