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Randolph College students take soil samples in James River

Allison Brooks gathers a sample of sediment from the James River along Percival's Island on Tuesday. Brooks is part of Randolph College's summer research program, which is testing for possible contaminants trapped near the RockTenn Dam. (Autumn Parry/The News & Advance)

Allison Brooks gathers a sample of sediment from the James River along Percival’s Island on Tuesday. Brooks is part of Randolph College’s summer research program, which is testing for possible contaminants trapped near the RockTenn Dam. (Autumn Parry/The News & Advance)

Jessie Pounds, Lynchburg News & Advance

With nettles and scrub-brush behind them and the James River before them, the path ahead became refreshingly clear for Allison Brooks and her comrades in research.

“Only up to our necks ─ let’s do it,” she said.

Brooks, a rising sophomore at Randolph College, is participating in a summer research project testing sediment and water samples above and below the dam that runs between Percival’s Island and the RockTenn paperboard plant near downtown Lynchburg.

Brooks, fellow student Melissa Pasierb and professor Sarah Sojka, teamed up with staff from the James River Association for the project.

RockTenn would like to remove its almost 100-year-old cobblestone and concrete dam from the river, according to Rob Campbell, upper James River community conservationist. His organization wants it gone too ─ so it’s easier for fish to swim and boaters to navigate.

A major change to the river, though, requires the input of several state agencies, he said. Harmful contaminants like lead sometimes get trapped in sediment above a dam. High levels of contamination would have to be cleaned up before a dam could be removed.

Campbell said it’s unlikely that’s the case here, but worth a bit of preliminary research by Randolph students to check it out.

Wading out half-way, Brooks held open sample bags and jars while Campbell dove down to scoop sediment, dripping as he surfaced. Sojka swam to the far shore to do her own collecting, while Pasierb and River Keeper Pat Calvert worked from a motorboat.

The dam, just downstream, looks like a long sidewalk across the water, except for a break on the Percival Island side, where the river roars through and slowly erodes away the island.

Once they’ve collected all the samples they need from spots above and below the dam, a future step will be to “digest” the sediment samples in acid, Sojka said.

From there they can run tests for various substances. She insisted upon triplicates for each of the samples they took. If one sample comes out strangely, they’ll have additional bags and jars of mud for comparison.

“It’s easier to take a lot of samples and not necessarily run all of them in the lab, than to wish in the end you have more,” she said.

Brooks and Pasierb are in week two of their eight-week summer research program. Brooks said the opportunity to participate in research like this was part of what drew her to Randolph.

“I think it’ll help prepare me for what I want to do in the future,” she said.

She is eyeing a double major in environmental science and sociology and she has a special interest in the way the two disciplines overlap.

“How would this impact the people downstream?” she asked hypothetically. “How would it impact the City of Lynchburg? What do people think about it?”

With her toes in the water, questions lead to questions, beckoning her forward.



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