Environmental work isn’t just for young professionals anymore. Retired engineers, former biology teachers, and others with time on their hands are working on environmental problems as volunteers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Szweda Jordan reports on how senior citizens are keeping environmentally active:
Environmental work isn’t just for young professionals anymore.
Retired engineers, former biology teachers, and others with time on their hands are working on
environmental problems as volunteers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Szweda Jordan
reports on how senior citizens are keeping environmentally active:
(Sound of bird)
75-year-old Ivan Pettit is officially retired from his job as an environmental regulator, but he
hasn’t stopped monitoring streams, promoting recycling, and solving a nagging safety issue in his
(Sound of walking)
On a sunny day in Oil Creek State Park in northeast Pennsylvania, he drops a stone down a corroded
(Sound of rattling, splash)
Pettit is estimating the depth of this remnant of an old oil well. It’s one of thousands of
abandoned oil wells in this region. The wells date as far back as 1859. Pettit and a team of senior
volunteers regularly hunt for old wells. The seniors’ work improves water quality and safety for
hikers and hunters, and Pettit says it helps keeps him fit.
“It is work that I have always enjoyed doing as well as getting you outdoors and being able to
observe the things that’s going on around you, that is not a sedentary task whatsoever.”
Pettit belongs to the national Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement. The group claims
members as young as fifty-five. Pennsylvania has the third highest number of residents older than
sixty among U.S. states. Its active Senior Environmental Corps is touted as a national model, and
has been honored by the United Nations Environmental Program.
But senior groups across the nation are working on environmental problems. In Cape Cod, they
monitor West Nile virus. Seniors clean hazardous waste sites in Indiana. Michigan volunteers
install solar water heaters on poor peoples’ homes.
It’s a fast growing program. In 1993, 26 older adults made up the Senior Environment Corps. A
decade later, over 100 thousand were involved in work across the country.
Ivan Pettit’s work looking for old oil wells is the kind of effort that makes a real difference.
Besides being a hazard for hikers and hunters, some of the old wells seep oil into the ground and
it gets into streams.
In less than two years, the seniors have found almost two hundred wells. Environmental Alliance for
Senior Involvement president Tom Benjamin compares that to two college interns who worked full-time
one summer, and found fewer than fifty.
“Most of these individuals that were volunteers know that community and know the area. They grew up
there, they hunted those woods, they know what a oil well looks like, so they have some instant
(Sound of forest)
Every other week, from spring to fall, the well hunters line up horizontally, twenty feet apart,
and comb a section of forest. Some well holes are several feet across and twenty feet deep. Others
have narrow openings, but drop as deep as a thousand feet. Evelyn Kolojejchick and her husband John
lead Ivan Pettit and other volunteers in seeking out the wells and marking coordinates.
“Ok, longitude is?”
For both Evelyn and John Kolojejchick, well-hunting and other environmental projects are an
extension of teaching high school science for thirty years. Evelyn once aimed to spark interest in
many young minds. Now she feels she’s working on a smaller scale, but hopes to remain effective.
“I belong to Audubon, used to belong to a lot of other environmental organizations and it just
seemed like you needed… you needed to do something that was going to make a difference. I never
had any money to donate to all of these causes and you just you know, you want to do something that
an individual can do.”
Recently, the seniors saw results of well-hunting. They found sensitive species in a stream that
had once been polluted. Several oil wells nearby had been sealed with cement to keep acid mine
drainage out of the water.
“The first year we tested it for aquatic life, there was almost nothing there. And yesterday when
we were there, we had better diversity in that stream than we have in some of our streams that we
test all along that we know don’t have those kinds of problems. So they have made a significant
difference on that stream by plugging those wells. It’s remarkable.”
And it’s the kind of reward that these senior citizen volunteers had hoped for: making a difference
in their part of the world.
For the GLRC, I’m Jennifer Szweda Jordan.