A half-inflated, rather-sad soccer ball sits in the middle of the vacant lot. It’s a big lot, larger than two side-by-side football fields, but University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Gabriella Logsdon and five co-workers don’t have to wander across its entirety or kick the soccer ball out of the way.
With chrome soil testers, which look like a combination of shovel and scooter handlebars, they’re moving around a smaller section of the lot—randomly plunging the end of the soil tester into the hard-packed ground and then dumping its small piece of soil into an aluminum cake pan.
“It’s fun,” said Logsdon, who graduated with a bachelor’s in environmental science in May. She is part of a multidisciplinary program connecting students with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s search for lead in a group of South Chattanooga neighborhoods.
Soil testing in eight local neighborhoods is part of the EPA College/Underserved Community Partnership, a five-year commitment between UTC and EPA signed in November 2022.
As part of the partnership, UTC students are invited to participate in EPA public policy forums, presentations, seminars and other public events.
“The point of the program is to allow students the opportunity to get knowledge in their field of study while working in underserved neighborhoods and providing a service, typically free of charge, that’s volunteer work in exchange for course credit,” said Jasmin Jeffries, EPA remedial project manager for the Chattanooga-based testing.
“Students get experience with EPA, hands-on experience that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Dr. Dawn Ford, assistant professor in the Master of Public Health program in the Department of Health and Human Performance at UTC.
“They get to meet community members and talk to them about real-world problems. This is what UTC wants out of its students, to be able to engage in the community with these kinds of projects.”
In May 2023, the Tennessee Department of Health released a study showing that the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels has been higher than in surrounding areas in Hamilton County for nine of the previous 10 years.
The department recommended that residents in South Chattanooga regularly “have their children tested for lead, have their soil tested for contaminants, and take care when growing produce in their yards,” the study said.
At a Black History Month event in February, Laura Baker, who is in the first year of a master’s program in public health at UTC, staffed a table with information about the EPA lead testing in Chattanooga neighborhoods. She said many people who approached the table weren’t aware that testing was even taking place.
“I don’t think a lot of Chattanooga does, although it’s a really huge project, and it will impact our community in many years to come, I believe,” said Baker, who grew up in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Logsdon, who graduated from Sequoyah High School in Soddy-Daisy, said she became interested in lead testing after taking the “Introduction to Soil Resources” course at UTC.
“I fell in love with it. It’s insanely interesting,” she said. “This is a completely different field for me, and it’s something I’ve been interested in. This has been a really good opportunity for me to see what it’s like in the field.”
Before soil testing is done, owners of the homes and vacant lots are approached to get permission. If lead is detected, the EPA recommends removing the lead, a multi-step process that includes digging down two feet, removing the contaminated soil, then replacing it with clay and soil indigenous to Chattanooga, Logsdon said.
Once those details are given, most property owners agree without a problem, but not all, Jeffries said.
“We’ve had a few homeowners that have kind of given pushback after they’ve already been sampled. They’re like, ‘No, we don’t want to do the cleanup after all,’” she said. “But for the most part, if someone requests sampling, they do want a cleanup, especially those with children.
“One guy was chasing us down the street, saying, ‘Hey! Hey!’ trying to get our attention.”
Baker also has a personal connection to the lead-testing project.
“My brother rented a house in one of the neighborhoods where they’re doing cleanup, and I don’t think he ever had anyone come to his house, but he had no idea that soil was in his yard,” she said.
- Alton Park
- Cowart Place
- East Lake
- Jefferson Heights
- Highland Park
- Oak Grove
- Southside Gardens