Turning a Brownfield Green

In the middle of a five-acre lot full of weeds, tree stumps, overgrown bushes, and the occasional rusting steel drum, Amanda Johnson, MS ’13, spends her days putting in plants that she hopes someday will transform the brownfield into a rich, green park.

Johnson is leading a group of Ball State students enrolled in an immersive learning experience in subdividing the areas into three dozen 3-by-9-meter plots containing plants that may be able to extract the greatest quantities of metal contaminants—a process known as phytoremediation.

“In towns across America, we have these brownfields that are potentially toxic to the people living there,” says Johnson, a former resident of Indianapolis. “These metals have been in the soil for decades in some communities and are leaking into the water table as well as nearby rivers and streams. It is just not a safe way to live.”

Located in the middle of an aging industrial area of Muncie, the field has been a commercial and industrial site since 1934, including recent use as an automotive salvage yard. In 2008, Ball State researchers found it contained automotive parts, construction and demolition debris, trailers, and general refuse.

Johnson is examining the types of plants that work best in phytoremediation—a relatively cheap but time-consuming project.

The plants absorb contaminants until they are harvested. After harvest, a lower level of the contaminant remains in the soil, so the growth/harvest cycle must usually be repeated through several crops to achieve a significant cleanup. After the process, the cleaned soil can support other vegetation. The metal-vegetation can be treated to extract the metals for proper disposal.

“By using a combination of plants, we think we can pull the dangerous metals out of the ground—something that is fairly easy to do, but takes incredible dedication and use of resources over a long time,” she says. “In 10 to 15 years, we could have a beautiful green area that area residents could enjoy instead of a place to avoid. All we have to do as a community is commit to the project.”

Interest: Hazardous Waste Management

Johnson believes the project dovetails into her interest of hazardous waste management.

“This project has given me such a new perspective into what many communities in our nation are facing. When I take my plastic cup and put it into a recycling bin, I completely understand the process. Now I can take that information and raise awareness about hazardous waste and why we have to address it right now.”

Johnson and the other students are working closely with project director John Pichtel, a professor of natural resources and environment management at Ball State.

He says the project is important for students because they can apply the theory that they have been learning in the classroom and via readings to a local, real-world situation.

“Such immersion work has been a source of great experience and enthusiasm for the students,” Pichtel says. “They’ll put on their resumes that they have engaged in assessment, planning, and field remediation of a brownfield site. Few college students have such an opportunity.”

He also points out that students are showing great pride in working at the site, which should provide an aesthetically pleasing vista for local citizens and may enhance local property values.

Related Links

College of Science and Humanities

Natural Resources and Environmental Management

Immersive Learning