FROSTBURG – After almost 25 years in an old campus cafeteria, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory has a new $17.9 million home on the Frostburg State University campus.
“Our chem lab was set up in the kitchen,” center President Donald Boesch recalled with a laugh recently. “So obviously this is a better design for modern research.”
The new lab, on 11 acres at the southern end of the Frostburg campus, is full of modern research equipment, including a room with five 400-gallon fish pools, a deep freezer, an air-tight “clean room” and numerous computers to conduct complex experiments.
The plant also has emergency power generators and an elaborate climate- control system that includes two humidifiers and two dehumidifiers to ensure experiments are not compromised.
Much of the research conducted at the lab is focused on the further reaches of the Chesapeake Bay watershed to better understand and preserve the bay.
“As we are setting about to restore the bay, we know we need to look at what is coming off of the land,” Boesch said.
One area the lab will continue to study is how well the forest absorbs nitrogen from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, once it is washed out of the atmosphere with the rain. Nitrogen entering the bay accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the total nutrient problem, Boesch said.
“That’s in the same ball park as sewage and about half as much as comes from agriculture,” he said.
High levels of nutrients have been linked to outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida. Nutrients can also promote algae growth in the bay in a process called eutrophication, which depletes aquatic oxygen levels and is harmful to marine life.
Boesch said the rate at which the Chesapeake headlands filter nitrogen is not well known.
The Appalachian Lab is also studying fish farming, wildlife behavior, the effects of acid drainage from mines and how defoliation by gypsy moths has affected the forests, among other projects.
The lab is one of three under the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Studies: The others are the Horn Point Lab in Cambridge and the Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons.
Twelve faculty members and about 20 graduate students are now working in the new Frostburg center. Lab Director Lou Pitelka says he plans to expand and fill out the new building with more research work.
A 3,600-square-foot greenhouse stands behind the main building, put together with money that Pitelka said was saved during the construction of the lab itself. He pointed to five air-cooling units for the greenhouse that have not yet been hooked up, but said the greenhouse should be fully functional within a year.
Even though some of its new equipment still rests on the floor in shipping boxes awaiting installation, the Frostburg lab is scheduled to hold an open house for the public Saturday. In conjunction with the open house, the lab will also host an opening ceremony, a press preview and an environmental symposium with scientists from across the country.
Pitelka is proud of his new Appalachian Lab and, to prove it, he has two golden shovels in his office from the fall 1997 groundbreaking. But, he said, he will be glad to get back to work after the inaugural events are over.
“One of these a week is OK, but four in one week — I’ll be glad when it’s over,” he said.
The open house is scheduled to run Saturday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. For more information call (301)689-7102.