words by Jill Spotz / photographs by Pete Byron
teven Spayd, MPH ’04, had been working at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as a hydrogeologist for more than 15 years when he volunteered his own private well for a water quality study back in 1999. As an expert in ground water pollution, his detective work had helped to solve a multitude of water supply contamination problems throughout the state. But Spayd was surprised when his own well’s arsenic levels tested the highest the DEP had ever seen. A naturally occurring, colorless, odorless, and tasteless toxic element, arsenic is now known to be found in well water in the Piedmont geographic section of New Jersey (encompassing Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Union, Somerset, and parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris, Middlesex and Passaic counties).“How ironic that I was the one to call if a person had a contaminated well and then to find my own water source was laden with arsenic,” comments Spayd. Before buying the home with this well, Spayd had tested the water for all the known common contaminants, but at that time no one knew arsenic could be a problem in New Jersey. Spayd says, “I had tested the water for all the right things except arsenic.”
An environmentalist in every sense of the word, Spayd quickly stepped into action at work and at home to try to solve the problem. What he stumbled upon was a large scale water contamination issue that needed instant attention. His team’s work resulted in identifying a major arsenic problem in the Piedmont area by testing many wells in the region. They then developed a communication and education plan for affected residents. “My interest was personal as well as professional,” he explains.
Spayd’s interest in the subject prompted him to enroll in UMDNJ’s School of Public Health (SPH), where he simultaneously earned a master’s degree and got a handle on the state’s arsenic problem. “Several of my master’s classes were very helpful with this project,” he explains. “The health education class was instrumental in helping me develop the best methods to disseminate information to residents, enable them to conveniently test their water, and get water treatment if needed. Arsenic exposure reduction via drinking water treatment systems was the topic of my field work project.” Spayd is currently enrolled in the SPH doctoral program and is expected to finish in 2008. His study of arsenic is ongoing and also the topic of his doctoral research.
So what prompted the one-time earth science teacher to enter a field like hydrogeology? Well, it’s certainly not the career that Spayd had imagined he’d pursue. “I wanted to be a rich petroleum geologist,” he recalls. “I even worked in mineral exploration in Wyoming immediately after school. But, I was newly married and did not want to travel as much as the job required.” He moved back to New Jersey, and after a brief time teaching and working in environmental consulting, Spayd eventually ended up at the DEP.
It wasn’t until he started working for the state agency that he found the connection to public health. “In 1984, the superfund law was created and virtually all superfund sites had ground water contamination,” he explains. “The DEP needed people who had experience in geology to work on well pollution.” And so his career began.
For individuals wishing to become a hydrogeologist, Spayd says an interest in science is foremost. “Hydrogeology is an interdisciplinary field where all the sciences come together including geology, physics, biology and chemistry, and also math,” he explains. “Our job is multifaceted. We study ground water flow and quality throughout the state, how natural and man-made pollution sources affect water quality, the management of cleanups from spills and leaking tanks at gas stations to hazardous waste dumps and major industrial facilities, and the testing of wells to ensure safe water supplies.” Spayd says, “A bachelor’s degree in geology is required and a master’s degree in hydrogeology or a related field is helpful.”
As a man who wears many hats, Spayd is a hydrogeologist by trade but an environmentalist and a farmer at heart. In 1989 he and his wife purchased a small farm in Hunterdon County that they opened for pumpkin picking and horse-drawn hayrides. “After a while we couldn’t keep up with some of the time intensive activities on the farm,” Spayd explains. “I wanted to focus on something that wouldn’t require as much time, but still produce a quality product that was not too difficult to farm organically, so we decided to try popcorn.”
And so Amwell Valley Organic Grains was born, a certified organic popcorn business which Spayd describes as his “hobby that has gotten out of control.” Why popcorn? “I needed a product that had a longer harvesting season,” he explains. “For example, when sweet corn is ready to be harvested, you have to pick it that day, and that would just not fit into my schedule. I would not be able to leave work because the ‘corn is ready,’ ” he says. “Popcorn can be harvested in the fall over a longer period of time.” Spayd’s popcorn contains no partially hydrogenated oils yet can still be microwaved due to its moisture content and kernel size. It’s sold in health food stores throughout the country and can be ordered online at www.farmersteve.com.
Spayd is so busy that he admits it’s difficult to manage his day job as well as his doctoral work and family business. On a typical day you might find him reviewing computer models of ground water contamination or testing someone’s well to verify that their water treatment system is working. On other days, he may be harder to find because he’s away speaking at a conference on ground water pollution. Or he could be focusing on his upcoming projects, like naturally occurring radioactive substances found in ground water, or pharmaceuticals, which have the potential to contaminate well water through septic systems.
Or, you might just spot him out in the field, checking on his popcorn.