Sea Grant projects address CEC concerns nationally

Water testing
photo courtesy of National Sea Grant

By Brooke Carney / National Sea Grant

Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) are increasingly detected in surface water and groundwater, posing risks to the Nation’s drinking waters and aquatic life. Over the last three years, Sea Grant has been building its CEC-focused research portfolio and supporting projects that serve locally-derived information needs. 

The broad class of chemicals and materials referred to as Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC) is characterized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their perceived, potential, or demonstrated threat to human health and/or the environment, but are often excluded from monitoring programs and suffer from a lack of published health and/or water quality standards (EPA 2008). CECs include, but are not limited to: pharmaceuticals, personal care or household cleaning products, industrial chemicals (e.g., per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)), lawn care and agricultural products, and microfibers. 

Congress has directed Sea Grant to “partner with State agencies and academic institutions to research and monitor contaminants of emerging concern that may cause ecological or human health impacts, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in coastal and estuarine waters.” The National Sea Grant Office has successfully issued three national competitive funding opportunities to support initiatives focused on regionally relevant CEC issues and priorities. 

Sea Grant is pleased to announce two projects receiving approximately $1M in FY2023 funding through a competitive opportunity focused on CECs. The projects, detailed below, will lead regional research competitions in the Pacific and Mid-Atlantic regions focused on addressing CEC information needs. 

Addressing contaminants of emerging concern in Hawaiʻi and the U.S.- Affiliated Pacific Islands through a competitive research program
Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, $503,352 (FY 2023), Principal Investigator: Eileen Nalley

Hawai’i Sea Grant will conduct a regionally-competed research program to address CECs in the communities and coastal ecosystems of the insular Pacific, a vast geographic and culturally diverse area with Indigenous and historically marginalized populations. In Hawaiʻi and other U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (USAPI), intense urban, residential, industrial, and military development along a narrow strip of coastal land results in a suite of CECs being released and transported into groundwater and nearshore reef ecosystems, but the impacts remain understudied. The three project objectives are to 1) support research and monitoring projects that build knowledge and understanding of the distribution and impacts of CECs in Hawaiʻi and the USAPI, 2) foster collaborations and engage in successful partnerships with state agencies to address priority issues related to CECs, and 3) enhance cultural awareness and engagement with underserved communities. This tripartite structure is critical for achieving evidence-based, equitable, just, and actionable solutions to CEC issues in Hawaiʻi and the USAPI while informing and inspiring solutions nationwide.

Identification and mitigation of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in stormwater in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities of the Chesapeake Bay watershed
Virginia Sea Grant, $458,863 (FY2023), Principal Investigator: Troy Hartley

Virginia Sea Grant and the Virginia Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) have brought together a new partnership among mid-Atlantic state Sea Grant programs (MD, PA, NY, DE, NJ, NC), the United States Geological Survey (USGS)-funded WRRCs in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (WV, PA, DE), and the Chesapeake Bay Program Toxic Contaminants Workgroup to put forward this project to identify and mitigate Contaminants of Emerging Concern in stormwater in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The project will create a collaborative and regionally-focused research competition that will build on previously funded CEC projects in Virginia and other CEC research being done in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Through this research competition, selected projects will conduct research in socially disadvantaged communities that 1) investigate the prevalence, transportation and biogeochemical transformations of various CECs in stormwater, 2) determine the ability of current Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce CECs in stormwater 3) research new methods of CEC mitigation via new or altered stormwater BMPs, and 4) provide a regional outreach and education program that engages impacted communities. 

In FY2022, Sea Grant funded two projects with similar structures and goals in the Southeast and Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Region PFAS Scoping and Competitive Research Program, led by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, has completed scoping and is reviewing proposals received from its 2023 competition. The Building a Regional Network to Study the Influence of Climate Change on Contaminants of Emerging Concern project, led by South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, is also underway. 

In FY2021, the National Sea Grant Office supported a nationwide scoping campaign to identify how the National Sea Grant College Program’s expertise in contaminants of emerging concern can be most effectively leveraged. Connecticut Sea Grant, in collaboration with the New Hampshire and North Carolina Sea Grant programs and Lighthouse Consulting Group, published the resulting national framework in May 2022.

The National Sea Grant Office also provided funding in FY2021 to Connecticut Sea Grant to administer a regional research competition in the Mid-Atlantic. The Mid-Atlantic CEC research competition recently announced the projects selected through that competitive process. The awards will fund research in New Haven, Connecticut; Norfolk and Hampton, Virginia; Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island; and Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York focused on CECs. 

The National Sea Grant College Program (Sea Grant) consists of 34 university-based programs in every coastal and Great Lakes state, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Sea Grant works with local partners and communities to identify local priorities and needs and then uses a comprehensive approach of basic and applied research, community outreach and extension, and education to work with communities to “enhance the practical use and conservation of coastal, marine and Great Lakes resources in order to create a sustainable economy and environment.”