EPA grant to help ECU prevent pollution, improve health

One person’s trash is another, well, is everybody’s problem.

East Carolina University’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering (CSE3) recognizes that and aims to help companies and manufacturers reduce pollution and waste, thus helping the environment as well as a company’s bottom line.

Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, right, director of ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering and the associate dean for research for the College of Engineering and Technology, goes over material with student Alexa Ferro and Melissa Nolan, pollution prevention specialist, in a lab in the Science and Technology Building. The center has received a new pollution prevention grant from the EPA. (Photo by Ken Buday)

To that end, CSE3 has received a $563,932 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that targets pollution prevention as a way to improve public health in disadvantaged communities.

“The ultimate objective is to significantly enhance human health and the environment at the local level, ultimately contributing to a healthier, more sustainable future,” said Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, CSE3 director and associate dean for research for the College of Engineering and Technology.

The Environmental Justice in Communities grant is intended to allow CSE3 to develop and adopt practices that prevent pollution and increase water and energy efficiency at manufacturing facilities. The reduction of pollutants and contaminants through these practices is designed to support the health of those in North Carolina communities characterized by low-income and minority populations.

The project is called “Advancing Environmental Justice in Disadvantaged N.C. Communities through Pollution Prevention and Technical Assistance for Manufacturing Facilities.” Abdel-Salam said CSE3 staff and students will provide their expertise in clean production, clean energy and waste reduction. CSE3 will assess resource use in the facilities and the potential for pollution prevention. Specialized training and roundtable discussions that focus on pollution prevention strategies and energy efficiency will support the adoption of clean production practices.

“Through this funding from the EPA, ECU will develop innovative approaches that are informed by academic and industry experts, accessible to community members, and drive advancements to address critical issues facing eastern North Carolina and places around the world,” said Dr. Sharon Paynter, acting chief research and engagement officer in ECU’s Office of Research, Economic Development and Engagement. “The potential impacts of increased use of safe, sustainable products as well as manufacturing practices that sustain and preserve environmental and human health is an example of the kinds of transformational innovation that ECU strives to deliver. We thank the EPA for its support of this important work.”

Student Perspective

Engineering major Alex Ferro has been a student worker and researcher at CSE3 for two years. He believes the goal of improving health through pollution prevention is noteworthy.

“This grant exemplifies a crucial step toward achieving environmental justice and promoting equitable access to clean and healthy living conditions for all,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a part of the CSE3 team and all that it offers.”

What CSE3 offers him is experience that he says has expanded the knowledge he’s learned in the classroom while enhancing his career goals to work on sustainable solutions in electrical systems and technology. He hopes to work in the solar power industry or with renewable energy resources.

“The experience I’ve gotten from working with professionals, professors and students with like minds has given me more validation that I am focusing on the right things and have made the right choices that led me here,” said Ferro, who will graduate in December. “Apart from improving my soft skills with professionals from different industries, I also improved my technical skills in ways that will surely give me an edge when looking for jobs in my competitive field.”

Ferro said the center fit exactly what he was looking for when he came to ECU.

“I have always had a passion for sustainable practices and have wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself,” he said. “CSE3 helped me scratch that itch of wanting to help people and then some.”

The Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering EPA team includes faculty, staff and students dedicated to pollution prevention.

Matching the Mission

Abdel-Salam said the EPA grant aligns with ECU’s mission of being a national model for student success, public service and regional transformation.

“This project closely resonates with this mission by developing the leaders of tomorrow who will serve and inspire positive change,” he said. “By focusing on environmental justice and pollution prevention, we contribute to the betterment of eastern North Carolina and its broader community, directly supporting the goal of discovering new knowledge and innovations for a thriving future.”

ECU was among 24 national grant recipients to receive nearly $16 million from the EPA in pollution prevention grants to advance environmental justice.

The grant is a continuation of CSE3’s efforts to support sustainability, pollution prevention and green manufacturing. A previous $350,000 grant from the EPA allowed ECU engineering students to intern in manufacturing facilities this summer to help companies reduce pollution, conserve water and save energy through lean and green practices. CSE3 faculty and students have also conducted energy use audits for food and beverage companies throughout the state as part of a previous EPA grant.

For more information on the center, visit its website.