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Measuring water contamination in New Zealand

March 29, 2012

The mag­ni­tude 6.3 earth­quake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in Feb­ruary 2011 is con­sid­ered to be one of the island country’s most deadly and expen­sive dis­as­ters, killing 185 people and costing an esti­mated $30 million.

Less than one year after the envi­ron­mental dis­aster, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity sopho­more biology and envi­ron­mental sci­ence com­bined major Michael Orbank began helping to restore order to the dev­as­tated city through a co-​​op with the Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and Research, a government-​​run orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides ser­vices in envi­ron­mental health and forensic science.

In his role, Orbank col­lects and ana­lyzes water sam­ples throughout south­east New Zealand. Infra­struc­ture damage caused by the earth­quake pol­luted the Avon River, which, he said, is now filled with extremely high levels of toxins such as E. coli.

The earth­quake knocked out much of the city and knocked down much of the water san­i­ta­tion levels,” Orbank said, noting that his data is used by New Zealand’s Min­istry of Health to help solve the con­t­a­m­i­nated water crisis. “You really don’t want E. coli in your drinking water or your playing water.”

Orbank also ana­lyzes pol­lu­tion caused by New Zealand’s changing economy. Increased dairy farming, for example, has con­t­a­m­i­nated rural wells with waste from the growing live­stock population.

The Buf­falo, N.Y., native lives in a stu­dent dor­mi­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Can­ter­bury. He joined sev­eral campus clubs that have given him the oppor­tu­nity to see much of the nation’s lush, green landscape.

His research in New Zealand, he said, is the first step toward his goal of forging a career that com­bines his interest in biology and envi­ron­mental sci­ence. “If you put my two majors together, you’ve got envi­ron­mental biol­o­gist, which is a really cool pro­fes­sion,” Orbank said.

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