Environmental quality research at Tuskegee University is conducted through the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences often in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or state agencies--the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) or the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI). Major research focus areas include the fate of environmental contaminants in soil and water, determining indices to characterize soil quality, and the impact of land use on water quality. One of the major features of our research in water quality is the testing of private wells in the state of Alabama and providing educational programs for farmers.
Fate of Environmental Contaminants
This area of research has focused on the effect of pesticides and pharmaceuticals residues on soil and water quality. Current ongoing research in this area centers around understanding the mechanism used by microbes to degrade pesticides at accelerated rates. Major pesticides which have been studied to date include the carbamothioates and Fenamiphos using isolated soil microbes. It is hoped that understanding the mechanisms of enhanced pesticide degradation will provide ways to engineer microbes that could be used in biodegradation of pesticides.
Unlike water quality the parameters used to measure how good a soil is performing its functions is not well documented. Tuskegee research in this area is looking at possible use of soil enzyme activity and microbial diversity as possible indicators of soil quality. Current research in use of soil enzyme activity has focused on the phosphatases and sulfatases that have so far shown promise as possible indicators.
Another possible indicator for soil quality being evaluated in the Environmental Quality Lab is the use of microbial diversity as a tool to assess soil quality. Until recently, soil microbial counts using selective media have been used in determining the total microbial population in soils. Recent evidence indicates that these methods underestimate the total microbial populations and their diversity. Advances in extraction of DNA from soil are now allowing researchers to have a better appreciation of the complexity of the microbial population in soils. Using this emerging technology, Tuskegee’s Environmental Quality Laboratory has a number of graduate students evaluating soil microbial DNA collected from various land usage sites and applying DGGE (Density Gradient Gel Electrophoresis) analysis--revealing more diverse microbial DNA populations. The students are using these studies to determine the influence of land use on soil quality.
Water quality testing at Tuskegee University is now in its second decade of operation under the leadership of Dr. Ramble Ankumah, a soil biochemist, head of the Environmental Sciences division and director of the testing program from its start. He is assisted by research associate Dr. Aiguo Liu and graduate and undergraduate students in Environmental Sciences.
Ninety percent of the water samples tested at our Water Quality Laboratory came from private wells in the Black Belt through their county Extension agents. The rest came through county agents outside the Black Belt or staff of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management or the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. It is a service offered to rural people still using shallow wells or people living in older homes who are worried about their water quality and unable to afford testing by private laboratories.
Because high levels of nitrates can be very dangerous, even fatal, to infants under six months, it is very important that water mixed with formula or drinking water for the very young be safe. Nitrates come from nitrogen fertilizer that breaks down in the soil with time. Nitrates are converted to nitrite in the body which, in infants, binds to their hemoglobin preventing it from taking oxygen. In adults, high levels of nitrates may cause some forms of cancer. Generally speaking, very few samples reached the 10 parts per million (ppm) which represents the EPA maximum approved for nitrates. According to Ankumah though, quite a few had nitrate counts of 3 ppm. For this reason, he intends to retest those water sources tested 10 or more years ago.
The Clean Water Act of 1977 mandated that every body of water in the U.S. be classified: Class A water is swimmable; Class B is adequate for fish and wildlife; Class C is usable as a public water source with treatment; and Class D is water that passes through agricultural land which may also need treatment for nitrates, phosphorous, organic carbon and other trace metals. The goal is to make all water at least fishable and preferably swimmable, and to keep it that way.
This and other important laws aimed at safeguarding the environment have created a tremendous workload for agencies like ADEM and ADAI. There is a growing number of undergraduate and graduate students with environmental science as a double major with chemistry or biology or as a minor with Plant and Soil Science or Forestry. More than 10 graduate students are currently pursuing masters’ degrees and conducting research collecting needed data for the state of Alabama.
As a precaution, ADEM and ADAI have categorized all Alabama streams as impaired and are now funding some of our graduate students to determine levels of organic carbon—which depletes oxygen and causes fish kill, nitrates, and phosphorous that may exist in Macon and Tallapoosa county streams.
A number of graduate students working on their master’s degree are researching ways to predict nitrate and phosphorous loads using an EPA BASINS program. Currently the students are working on four creeks that are under the Alabama impaired list in Macon County, Alabama.
EPA defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws regulations, and policies."
At Tuskegee University, our current interest in environmental justice includes research to find why minority and low income areas tend to have a disproportionate number of hazardous and solid waste sites in their communities. For example, the largest commercial hazardous waste site in the U.S. is located in Sumter Count, a Black Belt county in west central Alabama. Faculty and graduate students are focusing on studying the dynamics underlying the lack of community awareness of the regulations and how to bring minority communities to participate in and prevent disproportionate environmental burdens. In general, the environmental science program investigates environmental justice issues that Tuskegee extension agents working in the Black Belt counties of Alabama uncover.
One the key aspect of environmental justice research and training in TU is the incorporation of Environmental Justice modules in our Environmental Science courses and also in the Environmental Biology course.