Air, earth, water: Wampanoag lab keeps tabs on environment

Kendra Newick, manager of the Wampanoag Environmental Lab in Aquinnah, likes to know her work prevents people from getting sick. She is responsible for a wide range of environmental testing of soil, water, air, and food on the Island.

The laboratory tests everything from beach water to herbal tea, from oysters to house paint. Often, Ms. Newick is the first person to learn of an environmental threat to public health.

“It’s awesome,” Ms. Newick said of her job.

The lab, part of the tribe’s natural resources department, is located off State Road just past the Aquinnah-Chilmark town line on the shore of Menemsha Pond. It is funded by grants and income generated by testing and is equipped with sophisticated electronic testing equipment that includes an “atomic observance spectrophotometer,” and an “ion chromatograph.”

The lab has a state contract with the state Department of Public Health (DPH) to test water samples provided by municipal health agents. DPH requires communities to conduct regular water tests of all public beaches.

In recent weeks, the discovery of high levels of enterococci, an indicator bacteria on beaches in Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury led to beach closures. The proximity of the lab meant that retesting could take place quickly and beaches reopened as soon as the bacteria levels returned to normal.

Enterococci can signal the presence of contamination from fecal coliform, which can be a source of stomach distress or more serious illness for people with weakened immune systems.

State and local officials remain puzzled by the high bacteria counts, especially in ocean waters where there is strong circulation of water and little shoreline development. Bret Stearns, tribal natural resources department director, and others speculate that a long dry period, followed by heavy rains, may be part of the problem.

“Some of the exceedances may be related to more rain events this summer on Martha’s Vineyard than last summer,” said Julia Hurley, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health. “Rainfall tends to result in surface runoff or discharge that may contain bacteria, resulting in elevated levels in the water. Other than that, we don’t have any specific reasons that we can say for sure have resulted in the exceedances, but we are continuing to evaluate whether there may be other factors involved.”

Growing cultures, growing lab

The lab began as a service to members of the tribe, Mr. Stearns said during a recent visit. Primarily, it tested member’s well water. When coliform or bacteria was discovered, the department helped correct the situation.

As the lab grew, funded in part by federal grants, it began testing ocean and salt pond waters.

“That helps us support our natural resources work, like eel grass restoration, bay scallop restoration, herring management,” Mr. Stearns said. “Here’s what’s going on with your fish, here’s what’s going on with your water, here’s what’s going on with your air.”

With more grants, and income from public and private clients, more capability was added. “Our goal is to serve the membership, that’s why we’ve created all this stuff, it happens to be a bonus to everybody else that we have it,” Mr. Stearns said. “As a way to help support all of this and continue operating, we have a business that can generate some funds that go back into supporting all this technology.”

Fair air

Tucked in a corner of the room is a machine that monitors weather conditions, which are posted on the Tribe’s weather site wampweather.org. The measurements include the level of ozone in the air above the lab.

Ozone is a harmful form of pollution commonly known as “smog” from automobiles, factories, and power plants that gets trapped in the lower atmosphere. It can make breathing difficult, especially for elderly people, or people exercising. The Vineyard location is important to scientists studying how ozone travels, sometimes from regions as far away as the Midwest.

“We don’t create a lot of ozone ourselves,” Mr. Stearns said. “But what we do find is large sections of ozone will travel. It could come from a variety of places, but it’s likely it’s not coming from Martha’s Vineyard.” While many think of the Vineyard as a place where the air is clean and pure, the lab has already measured four days this summer where ozone was high enough to affect breathing. On July 4th, ozone levels on Martha’s Vineyard were significantly higher than any of the 60 monitoring stations in the northeastern United States, including Boston.

Color clues

Ms. Newick pulled a water sample out of an incubator. It looked like bubble wrap pasted to cardboard, with a little sample of water inside each of the bubbles. The sample came from a private well. After the appropriate time in the incubator, if bacteria are present, the water samples will turn color, providing a visual indicator. Most of the bubbles had turned yellow.

“This is positive for total coliform,” Ms. Newick said. “They’ve already been notified.”

At another machine, Ms. Newick explained how she tests for harmful metals like lead or mercury.

If the sample is a solid, like a paint chip or a piece of fish, she must first convert it to a liquid. The process is called digestion, and it happens just as food is digested in the stomach. Ms. Newick processed the sample with acids.

The sample was then run through the atomic observance spectrophotometer, which measures light waves emitted when the sample is burned.

“It’s like when you have a fire (in a fireplace) at your house,” Mr. Stearns said. “You throw in cardboard and it shows green, you throw in a different kind of wood and it shows red. That’s essentially what’s happening here. It’s reading the light waves. From those light waves, it can determine the presence or absence of a metal.”

Ms. Newick said she is rarely surprised to arrive at work and find test results that require some type of action to protect the public, whether the water came from a beach or a well.

“Pretty much every day is like that, when something is off the chart,” Ms. Newick said. “We test so many parameters, there is always some anomaly.”