UD alumna studies contaminated sites vulnerable to sea level rise

The Port of Wilmington has been an industrial powerhouse for centuries. During the Civil War, Wilmington steadily churned out gunpowder, ships, uniforms and other war-related goods. With the advent of automobiles, the city boomed with machinery producers, steel foundries and chemical manufacturers. Now, the local port is known as the hub of produce, touting the largest dockside cold storage facility in the nation, safeguarding the shipment of fruits and juices from around the world.

This industrialization was a boon for Delaware’s economy but a scourge on its soil. As new industries emerged, abandoned industrial sites dotted the riverside. Known as brownfields, these sites hide their histories in soils contaminated with heavy metals.

Fatemeh Izaditame, a 2023 University of Delaware graduate who earned a doctorate in plant and soil sciences, is determined to discover what happens to these heavy metals in a changing climate. With conservative estimates projecting one meter of sea level rise by 2100, some of today’s brownfields may soon be underwater. Because of the high incidence of arsenic and chromium in Wilmington soils, the city is the perfect location to study the release of contaminants from an urban coastal environment.

“Arsenic is a very mobile heavy metal. When it gets into the water, it can find its way to different water bodies and affect drinking and irrigation water,” said Izaditame. “When flooding happens, the resuspended particles stay in the water body for a long time and they can be transported to different locations. We can’t control the movement of the water and that’s what makes the prediction of arsenic fate during sea level rise and flooding important and complicated.”

Selected as an American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Engineering Postdoctoral Fellow (eFellow), Izaditame continues her soil research at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she’ll incorporate modeling and machine learning to study nutrients and heavy metals from a bigger perspective.

With support from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), Izaditame collected and studied soil samples from an abandoned site adjacent to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site on the banks of the Christina River. The EPA Superfund program, established by Congress in 1980 and formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), enforces the cleanup of contaminated sites to protect human and environmental health and to return the sites to productive use.

Izaditame’s research examined how the distance from the contamination source impacted the release of arsenic in the water and found considerably high pollutant concentrations in river sediments.

“The biggest surprise for me was the extremely high arsenic concentrations that we found in the collected soils and sediments,” she said. “Background levels of arsenic in soils throughout the world average from 1-40 mg/kg but we found 800-60,000 mg/kg arsenic in the site. Because many communities in Wilmington’s waterfront neighborhoods are low-income or minority groups, this also raises environmental justice concerns.”

This research underscores the need for the remediation of highly contaminated sites in Wilmington and appropriate monitoring of the sites most prone to flooding from sea level rise, which could help prevent the distribution of legacy coastal pollutants into local water bodies.

Izaditame initiated this study with renowned soil chemist Don Sparks in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources . “Working with Dr. Sparks was one of the best experiences I had in my academic life,” she said. “I learned a lot from him, not just about the scientific problems and the environmental research, but also about how to be an excellent mentor and adviser. I hope I can apply what I learned in my future career as a scientist and an adviser.”

She’s now expanding her research to other cities following her selection as a 2022 Engineering Postdoctoral Fellow (eFellow) from the American Society for Engineering Education and with funding provided by the National Science Foundation. The prestigious program places early-career doctoral graduates in university research postdoctoral fellowships, giving them hands-on academic research experience with a faculty adviser, and professional development and mentoring activities designed to prepare them for careers in research.

Izaditame (left) collected soil and river sediment samples from an industrial site on the banks of the Christina River adjacent to an EPA Superfund site. Arsenic, a highly mobile heavy metal often found in abundance at sites such as this, poses a threat to the safety of water systems and is of increasing importance in the face of sea level rise predictions.

While working as a research scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, she’ll be mentored by geoscientist David Hyndman.

“Dr. Hyndman is an expert in the numerical methods that I intend to incorporate in my study so collaborating with him is a very good opportunity for me to expand my knowledge into that aspect of the problem,” said Izaditame. “I’m looking at more samples, more data sets, and using modeling and machine learning to look at nutrients and heavy metals from a bigger perspective.”

Environmental science has always been an interest of Izaditame’s and she relishes the interdisciplinary nature of her work. She earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and a master of science degree in civil and environmental engineering in her home country of Iran. She started her studies at UD in 2016 and went on to earn a master of science in civil and environmental engineering and a doctorate in plant and soil sciences.

“I chose UD for my graduate studies for a couple of reasons,” she said. “First of all, my background was in soil pollution modeling and I wanted to expand my knowledge by gaining hands-on experimental experience. The plant and soil sciences department at UD with its multidisciplinary research programs was very attractive to me. Moreover, my husband was a graduate student at UD, so being with him was another incentive for me to choose UD. It’s a choice that I am proud of. I love the family-like environment in the department. People are so welcoming to new students and the faculty are supportive, knowledgeable and humble.”

Her experiences at UD solidified her plans to stay in academia.

“When I first started, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in research or go into industry. Now, as I’m working through all this data and seeing these results, I see that what I’m working on has a really impactful meaning in the real world,” said Izaditame. “It’s making me more interested in continuing my research and using the results of my research to benefit society and the environment.”

Article by Lauren Bradford | Photos courtesy of Fatemeh Izaditame | March 07, 2023