Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project
By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
Maps by Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator
A common assertion heard by proponents of citizen science is that concerned citizens are empowered by participating in data collection projects. But many studies have shown that the capacity for empowerment in citizen science can vary widely depending on how monitoring programs are established and managed. For instance, when volunteers are enlisted to collect data for studies designed by researchers in far-off laboratories, local issues of importance may not remain central to why data is collected in the first place, or how data is later used. Residents who live in at-risk communities may provide many hands of free labor for this kind of participatory science, but their ability to steer core research questions can be limited.
This installment of the Knowing Our Waters project highlights how empowerment can come from adopting a model of citizen science that places decision making powers into the hands of those who must contend with complex and evolving environmental issues at the local level. The article focuses on the New York Water Sentinels. Like many water monitoring efforts in the Marcellus Shale, the primary objective of the Water Sentinels is to obtain baseline data across their watersheds in the event of future pollution impacts. However, as this article will show, the flexibility of the Water Sentinels’ citizen science model also affords opportunity to ask new questions as knowledge of these watersheds expands. In this case, questions that pertain to the safety and legality of landfills and wastewater treatment plants in New York that are actively receiving shale gas drilling waste from neighboring Pennsylvania.
New York’s Shale Gas Waste Problem
“You can see it’s kind of gurgling,” the person next to me comments as we peer over the edge of the access hatch to a nearly 40-foot tall vat of stewing sludge. The smell is overwhelming, and we feel a bit uneasy about the rope and emergency flotation device hanging beside us on the railing. This particular container is but one in a complex arrangement of pipes, pumps and tanks that process the regular flow of leachate (liquid waste outflows) from the nearby Steuben County Landfill in Bath, New York. A dozen people stand below us on the next platform, listening intently as the plant manager describes how drainage from the landfill enters the system on one end, gets piped through the Village of Bath’s sewage system, and eventually discharged into the Cohocton River, a tributary of the upper Susquehanna River watershed.