RACER-Sponsored Student Design Team Wins International Recognition for Research on Sustainable Remediation


Omead Sinai, Ryan Chong, Daniel Vredenburg, Amy Wells, Gina Cortese, Trebecca McDonald, Nikhil Kulkarni, mentor Kevin Lund (MDEQ). Not pictured: Jacob Facey.

A team of students from the University of Michigan that worked with RACER Trust to evaluate a natural alternative to traditional groundwater remediation at the former Willow Run Powertrain Plant property has won a prestigious international award for its research.

The Battelle International Symposium on Bioremediation and Sustainable Environmental Technologies, sponsored by the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization, selected the University of Michigan team’s report on its Willow Run research as the winner of the Sustainable Remediation Forum (SURF) Student Paper Competition. The team will be honored during the Third International Symposium on Bioremediation and Sustainable Environmental Technologies, May 18–21 in Miami.

The U of M students are part of the university’s Multidisciplinary Design Program, a highly selective program in which students from various academic programs work together to solve complex, real-world project challenges.

Beginning in January 2014, the RACER team studied the feasibility of constructing engineered wetlands and infiltration fields to treat impacted groundwater at Willow Run. The groundwater, which flows at a rate of about 135 gallons per minute, currently is treated before discharge to the local municipal treatment system

“This is a tremendous honor for the design team, and well deserved,” said Grant Trigger, Michigan Cleanup Manager for RACER Trust and a mentor to the group. “The students took a holistic view of the option under consideration, looking at real-world financial implications and opportunities as well as modeling and testing the science. In the end, they helped design a sustainable remedy that we believe has great promise for safely addressing groundwater impacts at Willow Run.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees and approves remedial activities at Willow Run, is evaluating the team’s design for feasibility in treating impacted groundwater at Willow Run. Kevin Lund, a Senior Geologist for MDEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division and the agency’s project manager for Willow Run, served as the principal project mentor. Mr. Trigger said, “MDEQ’s cooperation and Kevin Lund’s leadership has been extraordinary, allowing us to bring real-world issues into the University of Michigan classroom, creating better graduates and supporting community interests.” 

“We’re excited about the possibility of implementing a solution like this because it’s potentially a safe and natural remedy that avoids commercial treatment and is protective of human health and the environment,” Mr. Lund said. “The models and field testing look very promising, and we’re in the process of assessing scalability and effectiveness over the impacted area. Wetland systems are particularly attractive alternatives where they can become an integral part of the overall landscape plan and a green sustainable remediation approach supporting site redevelopment.”

The Multidisciplinary Design team was led by Dan Vredenburg (Grand Rapids, MI, chemical engineering) and included Gina Cortese (Shrewsbury, MA, environmental engineering); Amy Wells (Lake Orion, MI, plant biology); Trebecca McDonald (Ypsilanti, MI, civil engineering); Jacob Facey (Verona, NJ, civil engineering); Omead Sinai (Columbus, OH, business); Nikhil Kulkarni (Maharashtra, India, construction engineering and management); and Ryan Chong (Saline, MI, civil engineering).

“It was an incredible experience to work alongside leading environmental engineers and consultants, and the team is thrilled with what we accomplished,” Mr. Vredenburg said. “We’ve deeply honored to be recognized by Battelle, but we realize this award wouldn’t be possible if not for the trust place in us by RACER and the results we produced.”

One of Battelle’s reviewers lauded the thoroughness of the research and presentation of the data, writing, “Complete evaluation of technology, field application, ROI, etc. Answers my question ‘how can I actually use this?’ ”

The research team concluded that a constructed wetland followed by an infiltration system can reduce groundwater impacts below levels required by an expected discharge permit, and will have a lower overall cost than sending the water to the local wastewater treatment plant. Cost analysis considered installation, operation and maintenance costs of the wetland/infiltration field treatment system, as well as the opportunity cost of using the land the system would occupy.

To read the winning white paper, please click here.

To see a video produced by the U of M team, please click here.