Tonawanda News

October 21, 2013

NT resident, professor earns grant to study environment

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — North Tonawanda native Erin Robinson, associate professor of sociology and director of environmental studies at Canisius College, said that as a child she loved playing in Gratwick Park so much that at 3 years old, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she told her mother she wanted a day to run around in the open green space by the river.

Later she, her mother and other North Tonawandans would become aware that the former landfill site was used for industrial waste from Occidental Chemical and Durez, and would later be remediated in 2001.

Once she was in her teens, Robinson said she heard about the Love Canal disaster, but recalled it sounded a little like the name of an amusement park; it later became a sort of urban legend for her and her friends, who would go driving around in the abandoned neighborhood.

Robinson was acutely aware of the environmental hazards in and around the communities where she grew up and as a child she became interested in organizations like Greenpeace and even began her own environmental organization during high school. 

“My parents introduced me to issues like that,” she said. “I remember talking about acid rain as a problem in one of my junior high social studies classes, for instance.”

Perhaps that childhood was what fed her interest to eventually study sociology and apply that discipline to environmental issues. She, together with a team of three other researchers from the University at Buffalo, was just awarded a $896,000 grant from the National Science Foundation INSPIRE program to study the impact of groundwater remediation for communities facing environmental contamination.

The grant, which was awarded last month, is for the three-year project titled “Advancing Groundwater Restoration Through Qualitative Analysis: What Practitioners and Stakeholders Care About and Why It Matters.” 

The project takes a unique approach to studying what would normally be a very scientific-driven topic. The four-person team is interdisciplinary. Robinson brings a sociological perspective, Kenneth Shockely looks at philosophy, Alan Rabideau environmental engineering and Michael Frisch history.

“Alan reached out to me in the spring and said, ‘We’re looking to apply for this NSF grant but traditionally, the conventional approaches of cleaning up waste sites aren’t successful,” Robinson said, adding that the researchers want to “bring in different voices.”

”As far as environmental remediation is concerned — especially in communities where the land use is hopefully necessary in future generations — we want to make that process more transparent and more successful,” she said. “Our proposal attempts to bring out perspectives that aren’t normally heard.”

Robinson, for instance, plans to focus on talking to residents in communities to learn more about what they’d like to see happen in instances of environmental remediation. 

“It’s science, humanities and social science all working together,” praised Dave Ewing, the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Canisius College. “It’s beautiful ... that’s how you solve problems.”

Ewing said he’s looking forward to involving Canisius students in the research.

“Once the project gets far along (the students) may even end up as co-authors on papers,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to work on this project.”

While she’s not yet sure which communities will be involved in the research, Robinson said she’s always been interested in the environmental impact of industry in and around the Tonawandas. She’s on the board of the Clean Air Coalition, which led efforts to study benzene levels in the air from Tonawanda Coke.

“I don’t want to make the research personal but I am incredibly proud to be able to do this for a community that I think has been environmentally abused for a century,” Robinson said of her home community. “It’s really a shame so if I can even do a little piece to help turn that around I am honored to do that for this area. I truly believe the environment makes the people and if we’re not healthy because of where we live how can we be happy and how can we encourage the community to be better?”

Contact Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116 or follow her on Twitter at @DanielleHaynes1.