February 25, 2005


Guided by Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, McCoy will present findings at national conference

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Britney McCoy ’05 (Upper Marlboro, Md.) was always told not to drink the water.

When McCoy, a double major in A.B. engineering and government & law, began thinking about her honors thesis topic, she wanted to include her experiences of growing up in the city.

Her thesis, “Searching for Environmental Justice for Urban Water Systems,” focuses on whether an environmental justice issue is associated with the large water infrastructures that serve urban areas. She will present her findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research hosted April 20-23 by Virginia Military Academy and Washington & Lee University.

McCoy is focusing on an episode of lead contamination that hit Washington, D.C., in 2003.

At that time, private contractor Marc Edwards, also a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, discovered that some city water contained in excess of 1,000 parts per billion of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency standard for the maximum amount of lead in water is 15 parts per billion.

“The city was encouraging residents to drink the worst water possible, water that was considered to be hazardous,” McCoy says.

When Edwards reported the condition, his funding was threatened. News of the contamination came out and residents sued the city for not remedying the problem in a reasonable amount of time.

“The reasons why it’s an environmental justice issue is that more than 70 percent of Washington’s population consists of communities of color,” she says. “Since income correlates to race, many times income is another factor of environmental justice. In Washington, more than 20 percent of the residents are below the national poverty line.”

Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and McCoy’s thesis adviser, says she is not aware of an equivalent study.

“We are treating this work as a first step – a way to initially look at the issue and see if it is worthwhile continuing this research,” Jones says. “I hope she can draw a conclusion as to whether there are differences based on justice issues.”

McCoy is thrilled to be researching a topic that has never been looked into before.

“It’s really interesting. I’ve found that most environmental justice work relates to air quality or environmental wastelands. For example, minorities tend to have more children with asthma, and some people would argue that it’s because more minorities live in cities,” she says.

Already, a presentation of her work so far has been well received by Lafayette students.

“A continued discussion at Lafayette will depend on whether there are students interested in continuing the work and I hope there are,” says Jones. “Depending on her results, I hope we can publish a paper in a national journal.”

Ultimately, McCoy just wants to jumpstart discussion on environmental justice issues and urban water systems.

“Hopefully if I continue to work on [the topic] after I graduate, I can present it to certain decision makers and policy makers,” she says. “I want people to think about it. A lot of people have no idea what environmental justice is, but it’s getting to be a big issue and people are starting to open their eyes.”

As a result of her research and passion for environmental justice issues, she has redefined her career goals to continue her education in graduate school studying engineering and public policy. McCoy also says her research has enabled her to have a rewarding and diverse college experience.

“Lafayette is an excellent environment for students to find their passion and incorporate it into the curriculum as a thesis,” she says. “Working on a thesis has been the best experience for me. I feel as if I am discovering some untold truth and presenting it to the world. Lafayette has allowed me to be free and study what I enjoy the most.

“My thesis is part engineering, but really more governmental. In class, I don’t have a chance to look at these different issues; this has allowed me to do whatever I want.”

McCoy is president of Association of Black Collegians and a member of Minority Scientists and Engineers. She serves in the America Reads, America Counts program and Big Brothers, Big Sisters through the Landis Community Outreach Center. She also plays intramural sports.

Honors thesis projects are among several major opportunities at Lafayette that make the College a national leader in undergraduate research. Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students have been accepted to present their work at this year’s conference in April.

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