Fixing Floatables

Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission teaches young students and guides adult learners on the path to environmental awareness.
Fixing Floatables
Student volunteers help with stream bank cleanup as part of the PVSC Education Outreach Program.

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Teaching environmental awareness via Internet video messaging doesn't sound like the kind of thing a sewerage commission would do, but that's exactly what the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) of Newark, N.J., is doing.

"We've had different age groups use Skype to interact with our staff on skimmer boats," says PVSC executive director Wayne J. Forrest. "Skimmer boats on the rivers, streams and bay remove pollution from the waterways. One of the components of the in-class curriculum is for the students to Skype with the captains of the skimmer boats while they're out on the water."

The captain gives an overview of the skimmer vessel and how it operates. The camera pans around to different parts of the boat to show students how the vessel skims debris. The students get to ask the captain questions, which are usually about the types of wildlife the captain sees on the water and the type of debris that is skimmed.

PVSC's educational outreach program includes in-class multimedia presentations to elementary, middle and high school students in Essex, Union, Passaic, Bergen and Hudson counties. "Public education is something that can easily be overlooked at a wastewater treatment facility, which is why PVSC has made it a priority," says PVSC commissioner Kenneth J. Lucianin.

The in-class education program and their River Restoration cleanup program have won a total of 24 local and national awards since 1999.

Environmental awareness

The classroom curriculum focuses on floatables and the importance of keeping them out of the area's waterways. "We show kids the concept of a watershed," says Tom Pietrykoski, director of public affairs. "How even if their school isn't next to a waterway, it's important not to litter because that trash will eventually find its way into the waterway and to our facility." The wastewater treatment plant averages 260 mgd. With 1.4 million residential users, keeping ahead of the waste in waterways is a must.

The program reaches 25,000 to 30,000 students per year. "In 2011, we hit an all-time high, providing instruction to 194 classes, totaling more than 32,000 students," says Forrest. "From 2002 to the present, we've provided this curriculum to over 200,000 students."

The curriculum is an environmental education awareness program geared for the age group of the students. "Whether it's an elementary, middle or high school class, the curriculum is designed accordingly to provide those students with awareness of the environment and keeping the environment clean," Forrest says.

Along with Skype messaging, staff members use PowerPoint slides to display images and information about floatables, waterways and shoreline cleanups. "We also introduce the concept of stormwater management to students in order to demonstrate the environmental benefits of those methods," says Pietrykoski.

Bridget McKenna, PVSC's chief operating officer, adds, "The program brings a perspective, especially to young children, to start thinking about the consequences of just throwing their trash in the street or disposing of chemicals in the wrong way and how that connects to their own environment and their own quality of life and recreational uses of the waterways around them.

"It gives them an early awakening to what really happens to the water in their house and how much work it takes to clean that water."

Waterway restoration

Once students complete the in-class curriculum, they take part in the River Restoration waterway cleanup program. "We follow up the classroom component with an actual stream bank cleanup with the students to reinforce the concepts they learned in the classroom and show them how important their daily actions are on the PVSC operation and keeping our waterways clean," says Pietrykoski.

Forrest observes, "I've been out on many of the cleanups with the students and they take it very seriously. We're educating these students who are soon going to be young adults and leaders of our municipalities, states and country. If we instill in them the importance of protecting the environment, they will carry it forward for many years to come.

"We see results from the educational program. When we go back to an area to do a cleanup, it's not as polluted as it was on a previous occasion. I like to attribute that to the educational efforts where our students were out telling others not to pollute as they have been in the past."

Citizen scientists

In-class presentations and waterway cleanups are geared for students in grades K-12, but PVSC has a program in the works for mature learners.

"The Passaic River Stewardship Training Program is a 20-week training program for which adult volunteers who want to become citizen scientists will sign up," explains Pietrykoski.

PVSC partnered with Rutgers University Cooperative Extension of Essex and Passaic counties and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to introduce the program in September 2012.

"The program is aimed at adult laypersons who have an interest in and knowledge of the Passaic River and its importance to the quality of life in their communities," says Pietrykoski. "The basic training course provides an introduction to the knowledge and skills that any citizen needs to communicate about environmental issues and to work with other members of their community to resolve local problems.

"There will be the training program with a minimum of 60 hours of classroom instruction with additional field trips and fieldwork within the Passaic River watershed. It will impact knowledge about the design of rain gardens and other stormwater best management practices, the basics of rainwater harvesting, stream bank restoration strategies, and ways to repopulate native flora in green spaces."

After training and classroom instruction, participants will commit to 60 hours of volunteer service with PVSC on an issue significant to the community and its relationship to the Lower Passaic River.

Touching young learners and adults alike, PVSC is making its mark on the Passaic River Valley community.

"The kids are part of a big puzzle," says Pietrykoski. "The work they're doing in school and on the riverbanks is just as important as the work we're doing here at PVSC and just as important as what our elected officials are doing. Without any one of those components, none of us would be successful."


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