University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Hosts Chinese Environmental Delegation

Release Date: 12-07-2006

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

From inside Burlington’s water treatment plant, Chinese scientist Yang Bin looks out across Lake Champlain. Behind him, in holding tanks, quiet pools catch the mid-morning sun. Where the rays go down, the water is so clear that the bottom looks magnified and strangely gilded. In front of him, the lake chop is up and bits of glinting snow rush past. He is surrounded by water.

The city of Chongqing, where Yang and his 14 co-travelers live, sits at the confluence of the Jialing River and the mighty Yangtze River. It is upstream from the largest hydroelectric project in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, impounding a reservoir that will, when complete, stretch 400 miles. The subtropical air in that region is humid and hazy. There, Yang Bin is surrounded by water too.

Problem is, people can’t drink the drinking water in Chongqing without boiling it first. Because of the dam, the Yangtze runs 300 feet higher than it once did, and because the once-fast-flowing river is now slower, there is more silt in the water, gray and thick. The city is huge and one of China’s biggest industrial centers, but it is bracing for more displaced people, more silt and more pollution as the water level behind the dam continues to rise over the next few years.

That’s why Yang Bin and his colleagues have a keen eye on advanced American pollution treatments and other environmental technologies. They’re part of a delegation of scientists and managers from the environmental protection bureau of Chongqing who recently visited the University of Vermont and other sites nearby on a six-day tour hosted and organized by the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

“The Yangtze is their lifeline, and it’s polluted,” says Jim Burgmeier, co-organizer of the tour with Jun Yu, both of whom are professors of mathematics and statistics. “They need expertise in air and water pollution controls, so we invited them here to gather information.”

Questions of cost
Tom Dion, chief operator of the city’s treatment plant, holds up a small vial. “We have two types of filters, anthracite and sand,” he says, explaining how water is pumped out of the lake and through carbon, like what is in the vial, before it goes into homes and businesses. “But the water is so clear here, most of the time it wouldn’t even need to get treated to meet the drinking standards. It makes my job easy.”

With UVM’s Jun Yu as their translator, several of the visitors ask questions about the cost of the filtering chemicals, the volume of water treated (about 5 million gallons a day) and how to deal with chemical residue from the treatment process. The Chinese scientists in return describe how mud is one of their biggest challenges in managing the water supply in a metropolitan region of over 30 million people. They smile when Dion tells them that Burlington has 40,000 residents — but are amazed when he then tells them that the water supply of New York City is so clean (coming from upstate reservoirs) that it doesn’t need to be filtered at all, simply disinfected.

This treatment plant is just one of their stops on the tour. Following a welcome from President Daniel Mark Fogel and Dean Domenico Grasso, they talked with experts from IBM, Auburn Systems and other firms about industrial waste disposal; received lectures on campus from engineering faculty, including Nancy Hayden and George Pinder, as well as researchers from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources; and visited the Vermont Law School. Many of them walked in snow for the first time when touring a ski area in Stowe to learn about its water management strategy.

“Learning about all these advanced technologies and ideas will be very useful to us back in our city in China,” says Guo Yijun, one of the leaders for the delegation, looking west toward the Adirondacks. “The water in Lake Champlain inspires us.”

A burgeoning relationship
The Vermont tour was inspired by Jun Yu, who represented UVM, along with Burgmeier, on a trip in China last June. There, he made connections with the leader of Chongqing’s environmental protection agency and suggested a visit to campus because of UVM's strengths in pollution management.

“They’re about where we were 20 years ago,” says Burgmeier, “except their problems are bigger.” One of the goals of the trip, he says, is to spur contracts and technology deals between UVM, Vermont-based companies and the Chongqing environmental agency.

Chongqing — located in the Sichuan province of southeastern China and one of four cities under the direct jurisdiction of China’s central government, along with Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai — is famed for its hot food. “When we were there, I told them I liked it really hot, and they obliged,” says Burgmeier with a laugh. “So, in return, I had them over to my house for some proper Texas barbeque” — and, presumably, big glasses of cold water.