Students collaborate with state environmental agency to reduce soil nitrates

Kansas State University Department of Agronomy and Department of Geology students are working together with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) to clean up a plot of land contaminated by nitrates in Sylvan Grove, Kan. This two-acre plot of land has been tested and monitored by two classes of Kansas State University students since 2011.

The site was found to be contaminated by KDHE as part of a follow-up investigation after the sale of a grain elevator. Ground water tests indicated that nitrates had exceeded the maximum contamination level for the area. Nitrates in drinking water are a concern as levels as little as 10 milligrams per liter of water can cause methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder frequently called ‘blue baby syndrome’ which affects children especially under the age of five. The chemical reduces the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen, giving the skin a bluish tint. Nitrates may also cause shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches in adults.

Original estimates for the KDHE testing and cleanup were around $200,000, according to Glenn Ringler, owner of the property.

“I’m thankful Kansas State University got involved in it. I hope this project works out for everyone, because the alternative was going to cost us,” said Ringler.

Chris Steincamp, KSU geology alumnus and environmental lawyer involved with the case, contacted associate professors Dr. Saugata Datta and Dr. Nathan Nelson about possible alternatives to KDHE cleanup. Datta rearranged his teaching schedule to incorporate the project in his Water Resources class, as this by itself satisfied multiple learning outcomes for the students. Nelson used the research and remediation as team projects for the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences capstone class.

The students in Water Resource Geochemistry and Introduction to Geochemistry under Datta examined the water on the site.  The first class of students visited Sylvan Grove in 2011.  Under the supervision of KDHE, four groundwater monitoring wells were drilled. Samples were taken at three wells downstream and one well upstream. Students found water at all depths had isotopes of nitrogen when they tested the samples in the geology department labs. The class then mapped the area to understand how water flows through the site and determined where the nitrogen distribution was most significant.

Nelson’s multi-disciplinary Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences capstone class focused on the soil contamination and remediation at the site. They tested the soil and reported on the nitrate concentration and distribution at the site. The students saw an opportunity to use phytoremediation, or the installation of native plants to restore ecological balance. The students chose to plant native grasses like big and little bluestem and cottonwood trees to reduce nitrate levels and water movement within the soil. Nelson’s Soil Fertility class also determined the removal of soil to alternate fields and pastures would not overload the nitrogen content of those fields or further damage the area.

The KSU students’ characterization report and remediation plan was approved with the help of Kelsey Wheeler, KSU alumna now working for KDHE. She instructed students on proper regulatory and legal issues involved in proposing plans to the government. The unified classes submitted a report suggesting four possible plans of action: doing nothing; removing contaminated soil to a landfill; complete phytoremediation; or a combination of soil redistribution and phytoremediation. After weighing the costs and benefits of each plan, KDHE approved the combination plan, involving the movement of nitrate-heavy soil to nearby fields for fertilization and planting nitrogen-absorbing plants on the site.

“We can’t give K-State students a break [on state regulations], which is good,” said Nelson, speaking of the cooperation between the students and KDHE. “They gained some experience on a real site and at the same time we could put together creative solutions to the nitrate problem. They have a greater appreciation for the complexity of environmental plans and for the real-world constraints on a project – environmental, legislative, financial, regulatory constraints – all need to be in the final solution.”

The last water sample of 2012 was taken in the late spring, after the recommended plants were planted. The Ringlers even chipped in, planting their own cottonwood trees. Now the monitoring stage has begun. Geology students are using private wells for more precise and localized samples to test for any reduction in nitrates. Agronomy students will monitor the absorption of nitrates in their plants.

“We knock on doors – ‘Can I get a pail of water from your well?’ Sometimes they don’t understand and ask us why. We say we’re testing for nitrates, which is well known in the farming community,” said Datta.

 “I think the investigation was very thorough and complete,” said Ringler. “They were very cordial to us and we tried our best to do the same.”

KDHE has identified hundreds of other sites in Kansas like Sylvan Grove, and has promised KSU the opportunity to use them for class projects as well. When the current site is cleared by KDHE, students will continue this partnership at other sites.