Hockessin teen takes up environmental cause with Red Clay Health Watch website

A Hockessin teen’s interest in local ecology has brought him to the labs at the University of Delaware to help determine the source of an ongoing problem.

Two years ago, Charter School of Wilmington student Wade Poon noticed the lack of aquatic wildlife in the Red Clay Creek around the National Vulcanized Fiber (NVF) Plant in Yorklyn.

“I’ve heard people say that years ago, there were fish and things everywhere,” Wade said. “You don’t see much there now, and I want to bring that back, and let people know this is a serious problem.”

That led Wade to contact UD, where he embarked on an ongoing water monitoring project with a variety of staff and student volunteers.

The project was developed with support from the university’s Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), and presented as a template for other civic, private, and educational groups to get involved with local water testing.

Closed down over a decade ago, NVF was internationally known for its vulcanized fiber, a cellulose-based product lighter than aluminum and tougher than leather used in flooring and a variety of other products.

Vulcanized fiber is created by soaking thin sheets of cellulose paper in zinc chloride, which causes the cellulose to gelatinize. The sheets are then pressed together to bond, and the zinc is removed by soaking the fiber in decreasingly less concentrated baths of zinc chloride.

Although a majority of the zinc used in the process was captured and reused when possible, when NVF shut its doors in 2006, containers of zinc left at the site deteriorated, adding the water-soluble solution to the groundwater and the nearby Red Clay.

“While it was in operation, there wasn’t much zinc going into the ground,” said 20-year-old Kate Holden a junior biology major at UD who is volunteering on the project, adding that as much as 90 percent of the zinc used was reclaimed.

According to University of Delaware professor Gerald Poirier, who is overseeing the project, the idea was to look at the zinc propagation above and below the contaminated NVF site.

“We tried to draw an inference to rainwater totals and erosion of the soil, looking at the zinc as it moves down through the stream,” Poirier said. 

Using the University’s ICP-MS mass spectrometer, Wade and other volunteers ran a series of tests to determine the level of contaminants from five different sampling sites, with two sections downstream – Lancaster Pike and Faulkland Road – showing nearly 14 ppb of zinc.

“We had no idea what to expect,” Poirier said.  

Wade said that while there were trace amounts of zinc and iron in water samples taken upstream, the amounts of parts per billion increased downstream from NVF, particularly after heavy rainfall.

The NVF site is currently the site of ongoing remediation efforts with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), following the state purchase of 40 acres of the 80-acre site for $2.6 million after NVF’s 2008 bankruptcy.

The goal is to clean up and develop the site for combined commercial, residential, and recreational use.

According to a recent press release from DNREC, a recent soil removal effort dubbed the “Big Dig” removed more than 325,000 pounds (over 162 tons) of zinc from soils beneath the site.

A groundwater recovery system has also removed roughly 75,000 pounds of zinc from the water source since 2008, the release states.

Brandywine Red Clay Alliance executive director Jim Jordan, who was environmental manager at NVF at one point in his 20-year career, said that before he left the company was passing stringent Acute and Chronic Bioassays for zinc levels.

“Zinc is an aquatic life health risk and not a human health risk,” Jordan said.

He added that while aquatic life has been affected by the presence of zinc, there is active life in the Red Clay.

“I’ve seen good fish downstream, even in the 80s, when NVF was actively discharging into the stream, we were seeing fish below NVF,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing fish below NVF, 200 or 500 yards away. Can I say would we see more fish if there wasn’t a zinc issue? Maybe. Would I eat a fish out of the Red Clay? Absolutely.”

Jordan said that progress has also been made in improving the Red Clay over the years, adding there is still much room for improvement.

“It’s not the doom-and-gloom situation of 30, 40 years ago,” he said.

Despite those efforts, Poirier said it won’t be back up to its former glory any time soon.

“It would take generations,” he said. “It’s a natural process and it takes time.”

Wade is expected to present his findings at a symposium this month, and will also maintain a website with the collection data and other information.

The data can be viewed at sites.udel.edu/wpoon.