$6.5M EPA Award for Great Lakes: Q&A with Clarkson's Tom Holsen

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Clarkson University a $6.5 million five-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to continue its partnership with SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Oswego to conduct the Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program.

Pictured (left to right): Students Mark Omara and Adam Point, Prof. Bernie Crimmins, student Timothy Johnson and Prof. Tom Holsen during a four-day research journey exploring Lake Ontario aboard the EPA research vessel Lake Guardian.

Pictured (left to right): Students Mark Omara and Adam Point, Prof. Bernie Crimmins, student Timothy Johnson and Prof. Tom Holsen during a four-day research journey exploring Lake Ontario aboard the EPA research vessel Lake Guardian.

Under the EPA grant, the team will:

  • Monitor Great Lakes fish for contamination from legacy pollutants such as PCBs, banned pesticides and mercury, and from emerging chemicals of concern like flame retardants and personal care products.
  • Assess temporal trends in bioaccumulative organic compounds and mercury in open waters of the Great Lakes, using fish as biomonitors.
  • Screen for new compounds of concern entering the lake ecosystems.
  • Assess the ecological health of the Great Lakes through interpretation of chemical analyses and other food web studies.

Responsible for overall management of the program are principal investigatorsThomas M. Holsen, Jean S. Newell Distinguished Professor in Engineering of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Clarkson; Philip K. Hopke, director of the Center for Air Resources Engineering at Clarkson; and Bernard S. Crimmins, research associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Clarkson.

Additional principal investigators include James Pagano, director of the Environmental Research Center in the Department of Chemistry at SUNY Oswego, and Professor Michael Milligan in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at SUNY Fredonia.

“The harder we look, the more we find.” ~ Clarkson’s Tom Holsen

Watermark asked lead researcher Tom Holsen about the work thus far and the work ahead:

Watermark: Based on the team’s research to date, characterize your concerns regarding the persistence of contaminants such as synthetic musks, and the human and ecological health of the Lake.

Holsen: The harder we look, the more we find.  However, trying to determine if these compounds are causing negative impacts is very difficult.  Alerting regulators and industry of the presence of chemicals in the environment is the first step in changing practices toward eliminating releases into the environment.

Clarkson Professor, Tom Holsen, center, and doctoral student, Mark Omara, right, talk with SUNY Fredonia Professor Mike Milligan, left, aboard the EPA research vessel, Lake Guardian.

Clarkson Professor, Tom Holsen, center, and doctoral student, Mark Omara, right, talk with SUNY Fredonia Professor Mike Milligan, left, aboard the EPA research vessel, Lake Guardian.

Watermark: Is there anything particular about the Great Lakes or the human communities around them that should preclude one from expecting the presence of these contaminants in other bodies of water surrounded by large populations?

Holsen: No. The primary sources of many of these pollutants are discharges from sewage treatment plants and stormwater runoff.  Both of these are associated with population centers around bodies of water.

Watermark: Should research such as that being done by the Clarkson/Fredonia/Oswego team become part of the routine monitoring of other water bodies?

Holsen: I think so – future chemical stressors on water bodies are likely to come from current use compounds.  Legacy compounds like PCBs and organochlorine pesticides are no longer in use so there is little that can be done now beyond remediating areas that are still impacting water bodies. We need to make sure current use chemicals do not cause the same type of long-term damage that was caused by past practices.

Watermark: Thinking back to the initial design of the research, what has surprised you most?

Holsen: Probably how little we really know about what is getting into the environment from human activities.  In the past we mostly just looked for things we knew could be causing problems. As analytical instruments and techniques improve we are able to identify new compounds that we didn’t know were there.

Holsen described the upgrades to come:

Over the next five years we’ll be adding new state-of-the art analytical instruments to help identify both current and emerging contaminants. . . With these additional capabilities, the Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program will continue its status as a world leader in the science of contaminant cycling in aquatic ecosystem

Clarkson President Tony Collins emphasized the national import of the Great Lakes research:

Protecting our Great Lakes water resources for both recreation and commerce is of vital importance to both our nation and state. This EPA funding will enable our university researchers from New York State laboratories at Clarkson, SUNY Oswego and SUNY Fredonia to apply their scholarly expertise to issues that directly affect our environment and economy.

Susan Hedman is EPA Region 5 Administrator and manager of the Great Lakes National Program:

This new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding will be used to expand efforts to track the levels of pollutants in fish at 10 sites throughout the Great Lakes basin. The data gathered through this study will help to identify contaminants that pose risks to wildlife and human health.

EPA has awarded this same partnership team $8.25 million since 2006 to monitor for contaminants in the Great Lakes.