Groundwater Specialist Digs Up Answers
Senior Industrial Research Chair studies movement of chlorinated solvents, pathogenic viruses through groundwater in fractured rock
BY REBECCA KENDALL
|“Water is an important resource, and many people in my profession talk about it becoming the new oil,” says Prof. Beth Parker, who studies how chemicals travel through groundwater in fractured sedimentary rock. Photo by Rebecca Kendall|
Prof. Beth Parker has been making a big splash since joining U of G's School of Engineering in 2006 and becoming a Senior Industrial Research Chair (IRC). The chair brings with it more than $5 million in funding over five years from industry partners, municipalities and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. They're all banking that Parker, an environmental engineer specializing in groundwater research, will dig up answers to some tough questions.
“I'm honoured to receive the IRC and see this as a great opportunity to work with my sponsors, colleagues and students to advance the state of the science,” says Parker, who is studying chlorinated solvents, which are oily liquids frequently used in commercial and industrial manufacturing.
Among other issues, she is examining how these chemicals travel through groundwater in fractured rock, where they're coming from, how they affect well-water supplies and whether they can be easily removed or destroyed underground.
Her interest in groundwater contamination goes beyond chlorinated solvents to include pathogenic viruses that are particularly prone to travelling quickly in fractured rock. This research is done at contaminated sites in Ontario and elsewhere.
These issues are of particular interest in southern Ontario because the region sits on top of sedimentary rock, she says.
“These chemicals easily invade our freshwater resources. Since the Second World War, they've been used in almost all types of industrial and commercial operations. They're even found in household cleaners. What we've realized in the last 20 years, as we've started looking for these chemicals, is that they're everywhere. They're hard to get out of the groundwater because of their low drinking-water limits compared with their aqueous solubilities. As a result, they're going to be with us for a long time.”
Chlorinated solvents, some of which are carcinogenic, are finding their way into supply wells and into people's homes, says Parker. Owners of the problem — commercial and industrial property owners — have been under pressure for a number of years to understand and remediate these problems, but it's expensive to study the subsurface, and quick solutions aren't readily available, she says.
“A lot of the existing water problems we're dealing with may actually be 20, 30 and 40 years old. Understanding the movement of these contaminants becomes directly relevant to the decisions that people who use them in their business have to make. Regulations exist that require owners with contaminated properties to remove the pollutants, and they need to know how to do that. I'm working in fractured sedimentary rock because it's one of the least explored environments to date, and there are opportunities to change our conceptual model for how we understand the processes.”
About 20 years ago, Parker was sitting on the other side of the issue as a project manager for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. Originally from Perry, N.Y, she earned a B.Sc. in economics and aquatic environments from Allegheny College and an M.Sc. in engineering from Duke University before joining Kodak.
“They had problems with chemicals in sedimentary rock, and as a project manager, I was responsible for helping Kodak make decisions about how to investigate and how to manage its bedrock contamination problem. I realized the answers weren't obvious or available, so I became interested in the research side of things.”
Her interest in pursuing a research career was what brought her to Canada. After completing a PhD in earth sciences at the University of Waterloo, she taught and did research there for 11 years.
Her career has included working with contaminated groundwater in sand and gravel aquifers, clayey aquitards and now in sedimentary rock.
“Water is an important resource, and many people in my profession talk about it becoming the new oil. It's scarce around the world, and locally it can also be very scarce, especially if poorly managed. But because we live in a water-rich part of the world, this might not be readily apparent to many of us. With the population of the whole region growing, we're beginning to feel the pressure to properly manage our groundwater resource. We have a culture where we think we'll never run out of water, and our mindset needs to evolve.”
Parker, who moved to Guelph five years ago, notes that local citizens haven't given up on the city's groundwater supply. “Guelph is trying to grow smart and be self-sustainable, and that's exciting.”
She believes her work will affect the way the scientific community approaches site investigations and remediation at sites with groundwater contamination. Besides finding answers to the riddles that plague this field, she is working to develop new conceptual models, along with new tools and methods for characterizing these sites.
“The ultimate goal is to better understand these sites and the risks posed by these contaminants due to their behaviour in the subsurface. Things will improve as we understand the nature of the problem in more detail and learn to factor this information into the decision-making process.”