Pennsylvania College Redefines Brownfields Reclamation

 

MEADVILLE, Pa. Crawford County Industrial Park, gestating inside the shell of the abandoned Avtex rayon factory that looms at the edge of this blue-collar county seat, has had an employee break room ever since it became the first cleaned-up site taken off the state Superfund list in 1995.

Some recall its once dirty white walls. Others remember the enormous heater that blasted stuffy air from its perch above the glass front entrance. But what everyone thinks of first is the dilapidated picnic table in the middle of the room and the empty tuna fish can that served as an ashtray.

Take 15 everybody. Smoke em if you got em.

It took two years, but professors and students studying art and the environment at nearby Allegheny College worked with local development authorities and the facility's new occupants to change all that.

Today, the picnic table is gone and the room's dominant feature is the vibrant, 33x17-foot mural that covers the back wall and tells the intertwined stories of nature and industry at this healing wound on the banks of French Creek.

Painted on recycled gypsum board, the artwork is secured to the wall with wood harvested according to sound environmental standards for forest health, soil erosion and wildlife habitat.

The giant painting , designed by Allegheny graduate Laura Penman, isn't the only new addition to the room. Framed photographs of the old factory depict the work of older residents, some of whom still live in this town of 14,900. Glass-top break tables that were constructed around the centrifuges and bobbin racks once used to spin and transport spools of colorful rayon thread now stand in each corner. Workers eat lunch and chat on chairs built from restored factory equipment and recycled materials.

To officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection , which supervised the cleanup of the site's chemical contamination before turning it over to local investors, the student-driven project is "a model for the state."

"This is the first coming together, in any meaningful way, of art and the environment," DEP deputy secretary Robert Barkanic said during a visit to the site last week.

Barkanic noted that the Avtex plant is one of about 800 sites reclaimed by the state under its Superfund and land recycling programs in recent years. "This one is unique, though, because of this great space," he said.

Sustainability and Salvation in Western Pennsylvania

Members of the resurrected factory's new work force know that when it comes to reclaiming the industrial ruins that dot the nation's landscape, remediation is a far cry from beautification.

The lesson of projects like the "Green Room" at the Avtex site is "sustainability," understood by its proponents as the effort to reconcile social growth and activity with a planet that has finite and sensitive natural resources. It's taught in some form at colleges and universities around the globe as part of an environmental studies movement that is at least a decade old and gathering momentum every semester.

Penn State University professor Chris Uhl says the core values of sustainability education are respect for life, living within limits, valuing local resources, shared power among stakeholders and accounting for a venture's full costs financial and otherwise.

According to the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future , 70 American colleges and universities in 29 states have now signed the 1990 Talloires Declaration to "openly [address] the urgent need to move toward an environmentally sustainable future."

Stand-alone projects are cropping up at larger colleges and state schools, many of which aren't Talloires signatories. At Penn State, Uhl had students research the school's power consumption and calculated that heat and light used up 7,000 lbs. of Pennsylvania coal and released tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. Students also tracked the path traveled by items selected from the dining hall's lunch menu and found that the average ingredient came from 873 miles away.

But it is uncommon for projects to move beyond classroom abstractions, and rarer still that they foster close working relationships with off-campus partners. Eric Pallant, the founding director of Allegheny's young Center for Economic and Environmental Development ( CEED ), says he is aware of similar, full-scale programs that combine sustainability education with community outreach at only a handful of small liberal arts schools in the northeastern United States.

In Meadville, where Avtex's departure in the mid-1980s dealt the final blow to an economy already on its knees, sustainability means stepping off campus to rebuild community spirit and help replace destructive industrial habits with "environmentally restorative" investments and business practices.

The students learning the sustainability lesson aren't just the 125 Allegheny undergrads who help solve local environmental problems each semester. They include local workers - not your typical bunch of environmentalists - whose cooperation is necessary for projects like the Green Room to have a lasting impact.

And after four years of CEED initiatives, Pallant and his students are now regular collaborators with redevelopment officials in Crawford County and nearby Venango County.

"This town was once magnificent. It had a really walkable downtown," says Pallant, a soil scientist turned sustainability scholar who witnessed one of the earliest episodes of sprawl while growing up in the New York City suburb of Spring Valley.

Evidence of Meadville's lost prosperity is most visible in the crumbling Victorian homes that line the streets of the town's older neighborhoods and in the recent rise of its auto mall and fast food restaurant-dominated neighbor, Vernon township.

Forty miles south of Erie, Meadville has been on the progressive end of some important trends in American history. Crawford County Democrats gave birth to the direct primary here in the early 1840s and local historians claim that area schools were among the first in the Keystone State to desegregate.

The Avtex plant, built in 1929 by British-owned rayon manufacturer American Viscose, symbolized the apex of the town's glory days. During the Depression, Meadville employers the rayon and zipper industries and the railroad - kept the unemployment rate close to zero. In 1938, American Viscose added 100,000 square feet of production space to its already massive industrial campus.

But things began to change in the 1960s, when the major employers began pulling up the stakes. American Viscose left in 1963, transferring operations to FMC Corporation, which passed the rayon-production torch along to Avtex ten years later.

When Avtex went bankrupt in 1986, it released 800 workers from a plant that had once employed 4,000. It also left behind 100 acres of burned out buildings and hundreds more of land sick with contamination from carcinogenic polynuclearomatic hydrocarbons (CPAHs), PCBs and flyash from the on-site power plant, results of the chemical manufacture of fibers used in everything from inexpensive clothing to dolls' hair.

It would be another ten years before anyone returned to work at the county's freshly scrubbed industrial park. The 21 businesses that now have operations at CCIP employ 1200 people, but as the leftover acres of undeveloped empty buildings and broken glass attest, it has the capacity to support a great deal more.

County development director Steve Hall, whose face appears in the Green Room mural along with some of the break room's regulars, says that partnerships like the one with CEED are essential to the facility's continued success.

And as Pallant discovered while organizing CEED, overcoming the traditional barriers between town and gown was the easy part. He says the community's first reaction to the brainstorms blowing over from the college was "What took you guys so long?"

Art and the environment?

One of Pallant's early partnerships was with Allegheny art professor Amara Geffen. The pair created the "art and the environment" minor, one of the nine CEED project areas taking students out into the community.

Other CEED projects are more intuitive and conventional. For example, "Creek Connections" and the environmental curriculum initiatives teach schoolchildren how to take water samples and monitor the quality of local streams and rivers. The "Visioning and Downtown Revitalization" program has Allegheny seniors working on anti-sprawl schemes for Meadville and Vernon.

But as Geffen points out, "artists have been working with environmental themes since the 1960s." She says art is a powerful ally for environmental projects in part because of its ability to teach.

"The whole point of working with an artist is that there is so much that can be done that is not being addressed by ecologists," Pallant says.

State officials agree. "The accomplishments in Meadville should and can be replicated, in ... singular ways, at all those inadvertent disaster sites about our Commonwealth and our country," says Erie-based sculptor Susan Kemenyffy, the appointed chairman of Gov. Tom Ridge's Council on the Arts.

The Green Room is only one example of the art program's work. Some of Pallant and Geffen's students are planning a rock garden outside the state Department of Transportation's Meadville facility to be composed of discarded road building materials. "ZenDOT" - the project's affectionate working title plays on the agency's acronym (PennDOT) - is the second phase of a relationship that began when students planted native flora around the facility's otherwise barren grounds.

This time around, DOT officials offered the students an open-ended budget to return and do "something" with the embankment surrounding their parking lot.

"I really believe we're the only people on the planet to have their DOT call them and ask them to do art on their property," says Pallant.

Working With What's Around You

On Interstate 79 coming north from Pittsburgh, the Adopt-a-Highway signs sponsored by Allegheny fraternities and sororities are as regular as the mileposts, but CEED demonstrates that the school's dedication to the region's ecological future goes far deeper.

Like a lot of colleges and universities, Allegheny has offered environmental science courses for a couple of decades. But when Pallant arrived in 1987 after completing his Ph.D. at Cornell University, he joined a department with one other faculty member. During his tenure as chair from 1989 to 1998, the department expanded to six professors and became the second largest major in the college.

Ellen Micoli, a 1999 graduate, says she came to Allegheny from upstate New York for the school's "great environmental science program."

"It ended up being even better than I expected," said Micoli, who worked on the design concept and proposal for the Green Room in 1998 and participated in the teleconference with FMC Corporation executives in Chicago that eventually secured a $10,000 grant for the project.

"It did really show me a lot of the things I needed to know in order to get a job in the field," Micoli said.

Micoli now works for AMD&ART, Inc. , an Americorps environmental art project based in Johnstown, Pa. Her efforts have centered on developing treatment ponds for acidic drainage from an abandoned mine that had been killing life in a nearby stream. She says the Allegheny project helps students "move past art that makes a point but doesn't heal."

And at least one CEED alum has found a way to apply his studies in town after graduation. Few Allegheny graduates stay in Meadville because of the lack of viable careers in town, but when Andy Walker earned his degree in 2000, he also made a two-year commitment to direct Meadville's downtown revitalization program.

Walker, a Pittsburgh native, is typical of many Allegheny students, who come from the region and are often in the first generation of their families to attend college.

Pallant says the local orientation of the student body is a tremendous asset for CEED's community relations. While Walker works with local leaders on projects like the conversion of the old, downtown Kepler Hotel into "green condos" for seniors that will incorporate ground-source heating and cooling, Pallant, Geffen, and other CEED faculty will help students realize a long list of visions for Meadville's sustainable future.

"There's a lot of work that can be done here. It's a continual process that never ends. There's always hope ... There are certainly big strides being made between the college and the community in getting them to work together and getting people to come downtown," Walker said.

In addition to the "ZenDOT" project and the April summit where elementary school students will present their findings on water bodies all over western Pennsylvania, CEED activities will include:

  • Phase Two of the Green Room project, which will develop energy-efficient heating and air conditioning and begin construction of a greenhouse-style windblock to keep weather from coming in through the front doors.
  • Brainstorming other CCIP projects, like the possible development of a bicycle path linking the park with downtown Meadville. Pallant says the plan is perceived as an "environmental justice" issue because third-shift workers do not get bus service from town and often take expensive cab rides to get to and from work.
  • The launch of a regional ecotourism web site, developed by Allegheny students to be turned over to the county's visitor's bureau.
  • Development of a plan to create a sustainable "aquaponics" lab - a symbiotic combination of a fish farm and vegetable greenhouse - on the grounds of a power plant in a neighboring county.

Standing in front of the brick faade of the Avtex plant, Pallant muses on the possibilities for sustainability partnerships between colleges and communities all over the country. "It's irresponsible for scholars to sit in their ivory towers and write research proposals for projects that will wind up only in some obscure academic journal," he said.

 
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