Staunton Up A Creek, Mary Baldwin’s Pentz Has Paddle

January 17, 2005

Staunton’s Lewis Creek has long been one of Associate Professor of Biology Lundy Pentz’s most practical and convenient teaching tools – and one of the city’s most nagging problems. For the next several months, Pentz will step up his involvement with the polluted waterway, which runs through the popular Gypsy Hill Park and the downtown Wharf area, by serving on the newly formed Lewis Creek Advisory Committee.

Professor Lundy Pentz leads a class“The college has a long and credible history of service to the community and this is one of the ways I can contribute to that,” said Pentz, who studied the genetics of Escherichia coli as part of his doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University.

The creation of the committee is one of several steps mandated by the state Department of Environmental Quality as a result of Lewis Creek’s classification as an impaired waterway. The creek’s unhealthy status has been on the DEQ’s radar since 1996, and a recent state environmental report further indicated unacceptable levels of toxic residue, cancer-riddled fish, and fecal bacteria in the stream.

Pentz is one of about a dozen citizens, environmental experts, state and local officials charged with recommending to Staunton City Council ways to decontaminate the creek. The city held the first of a series of required public hearings at 7 p.m. January 24 in City Council chambers.

Pentz’s hands-on work with the stream dates back to the early 1980s. A student project was prompted by a request from city officials to the college, searching for an explanation for the foul odor emanating from under the former Leggett’s department store where City Hall is now located. Joanna Campbell Swanson ’84 completed an environmental study that pinpointed several areas of high E. coli concentrations and submitted her report to the city mayor. The project initiated extensive repairs to old sewer lines in the city, and Pentz hopes two current senior projects can have the same kind of practical application and benefit to residents.

Sign announces date of community meeting about creekUsing advanced equipment purchased with the Mary Baldwin Math and Science Initiative and a grant from the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges, seniors Eme Hurley and Jackie Hensley are studying bacteria in two branches of the creek that converge under the Johnson Street parking garage. Their frequent and extensive sampling will be guided, in part, by questions from the advisory panel and the DEQ, Pentz said.

“It is only appropriate for me to pay back the community for the educational opportunities I have had from the creek by participating in its cleanup,” Pentz said.

State and local officials have speculated about the source of Lewis Creek’s most damaging pollutants: High levels of chlordane likely stem from a pesticide banned in the mid-1980s, hydrocarbons linger from the city’s coal-burning days, and fecal bacteria could be a result of leaks in the city’s sewer system or numerous pastures the stream runs through before entering the city.

As a member of the Lewis Creek Advisory Committee, Pentz plans to listen to residents’ concerns, help identify the sources of contamination, and put the creek on a path to better health. The DEQ has given Staunton and other Virginia cities with water quality problems until 2010 to make significant improvements.