We tend to think of our groundwater as a safe, protected, reliable, long-term source of drinking water," Dr. Michelle Crimi says. "But it's not going to be if we contaminate these stores of water, or if we don't do something about those that are contaminated."
Dr. Crimi has dedicated her career to developing technologies to treat chemical pollutants in groundwater. A professor and the director of the Engineering and Management program at Clarkson University, with appointments at both the Potsdam campus and Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, Dr. Crimi is currently focusing on eliminating toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in groundwater—a major supply of drinking water. PFAS are synthetic chemicals used in food packaging, nonstick cookware (like Teflon), water-repellent clothing, and stain-resistant carpets. And now, they've gotten into our water.
"Many PFAS compounds are toxic at extremely low concentrations," Dr. Crimi explains. "And it seems like everywhere we're looking for these compounds, we are finding them."For the Hudson Valley, contaminated water has become a growing concern in the last few years. In 2016, Lake Washington, a 1.3 billion-gallon reservoir that provides drinking water for Newburgh, tested positive for the dangerous chemicals, prompting the city to declare a state of emergency. Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Health found low levels of these acids in the Butterhill Wells water treatment facility in New Windsor.
- Photo: Steve Jacobs
- Dr. Crimi has dedicated her career to developing technologies to treat chemical pollutants in groundwater.
To help remove those dangerous PFAS compounds from underground water, Dr. Crimi is developing an in situ technology, which uses ultrasound waves to break down or neutralize contaminants. Instead of pumping water out of the ground to treat it, Dr. Crimi and her team are using horizontal wells, which capture water without requiring energy-intensive pumping and funnel it into their treatment reactor. But not being able to see the process has introduced its own slew of challenges—mostly around educating others about what's happening to their water while it's still underground.
"When you can't see, feel, or touch something, people might be a little bit nervous about where the water is going," Dr. Crimi says. "We really want to be sure we're not creating any unintended consequences, and that calls for very careful design, lots of due diligence, and lots of technology validation, which is where we're going with our next steps."
But what can the general public do about this problem in their daily lives? Along with learning about the problem itself, Dr. Crimi recommends that people have an open dialogue with their utility companies and implore their representatives to take action.
"People can engage in a partnership with those who provide their community's water to understand what [chemicals are in] there, and what can and should be done about it," she says. "The public can also talk to their legislators, both at the local and state level—even at the federal level—to make sure the resources are being allocated to understanding this problem and, ultimately, to developing solutions."
Clarkson's Beacon Institute is dedicated to inspiring sustainable water solutions in the Hudson Valley and across New York State and is also working to reach that goal. Established in 2000, the institute helps to advance science, motivate environmental literacy, and inform long-term public policy.
The institute offers academic programs, public education, and scientific research, hosting everything from trail walks led by regional experts and hands-on nature education programs for children to exhibits showcasing environmental- and river-themed art.
"There's often a disconnect between the scientific community and the general public," Dr. Crimi says. "But the Beacon Institute is the kind of place where we can bridge that gap."