I stood in the middle of a sewage plant, hydrogen sulfide wafting off the churning sludge, when the rotten-eggs odor triggered thoughts of home 200 miles south.
This place, I realized, reminded me of Hamilton.
Rather, I should say the Warwick Sewer Authority in Rhode Island reminded me of our own Water Pollution Control facility in Hamilton. As I walked around the Warwick facility, I flashed back to a similar tour I had taken of Hamilton’s treatment plant in August 2010. (The folks in Warwick are still thinking about 2010, too, but that’s a story for another time.)
Nine years ago, I had merely been curious about what happened after someone flushed the toilet. But now, as a team from Warwick explained the science and technology behind their work, I wished I could go back and do that piece on Hamilton’s facility again. I had been given a more sophisticated way of looking at the subject.
I felt oddly energized by my newfound insight. This was exactly why I had traveled to Rhode Island.
I spent the first week of June at Metcalf Institute’s Annual Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. Just being selected for the week-long program is an honor. The institute’s staff had chosen 10 of us as Metcalf Fellows from hundreds of applicants from around the world. They housed us in a Hampton Inn located in an unnervingly quiet and pristine mixed-use development the fellows called “Faketown, USA.” We were only there to sleep and eat breakfast.
The Metcalf staff jammed the rest of our days full of activities intended to improve our ability to understand and report on environmental issues—field work, lab work, classes, lectures. The Metcalf Institute is based at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Sciences, which meant we had constant access to researchers doing cutting-edge environmental work. This year’s workshop focused specifically on water quality, and I had dozens of moments where a researcher talking about, say, contaminants of emerging concern on Cape Cod triggered an idea of how the information could be applied in Central New Jersey.
We learned about disinfectant byproducts, wastewater treatment, sea-level rise and flooding—all issues that affect us here or will soon. We spent a morning on a trawler collecting fish and phytoplankton samples in Narragansett Bay. We went on “science speed dates” with researchers from institutions like Boston University and the University of Iowa. We had the opportunity to talk at length with guest lecturers, all experts in their field.
One such conversation gave me a thrill when a water quality and infrastructure expert from Texas A&M mentioned he had read this publication’s coverage of Trenton Water Works. I felt famous.
This fame came with some other trappings of celebrity, though, as the fellows were followed by professional photographers and a social media intern, saw our faces placed on promotional posters, served as guests of honor at the mixers we attended throughout the week.
Anyone who has known me for more than 30 seconds can attest this kind of lifestyle was a change of pace personally. But I can’t argue with the results. By the end of the week, I had a notebook full of sources and story ideas I couldn’t wait to use. I met scores of interesting people who forced me to expand my thinking or come at a topic from a new angle. This kind of renewal is priceless, particularly for a journalist who has covered the same turf for more than a decade, and has lived here longer than that.
As for you, this column serves as a friendly heads-up. We at Community News Service already had turned our attention to the environment in recent years. But I think you’ll see more—and better informed—coverage of the environmental issues affecting each one of us in the Trenton region.
What those issues are, well, you’ll find out soon enough.
For more about the Metcalf Institute, visit metcalfinstitute.org.