New Columbia Environmental Research Center facility allows new research opportunities

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | 7:39 p.m. CDT; updated 1:52 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 18, 2012
Jamie Hughes counts dead fathead minnows Wednesday after they have been exposed to different levels of sodium sulfate, a toxin that is released during surface mining. Hughes is working at the new U.S. Geological Survey Columbia Environmental Research Center. The data from the research will be passed along to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and state governments in the Appalachian area.

COLUMBIA — Due to the drought, Asian carp are particularly large this year — large enough to do damage to humans who happen to be boating through the animal's adopted habitat.

Sometimes called "flying carp" for their ability to leap out of water, this invasive species of fish, common in Missouri, can reach up to 40 pounds but usually weigh around 20 pounds. The fish are edible, but because they are relatively bony they can only be eaten at a certain weight.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey Columbia Environmental Research Center will now be able to better understand and control invasive species such as the Asian carp, thanks to a newly constructed 22,800-square-foot federal research facility that was dedicated Wednesday.

Duane Chapman, a research fish biologist at the Columbia Environmental Research Center, said that because of the drought this year, the fish are bigger than usual.

"The Missouri River is different from other rivers. When you have low water, it’s really good for growth for these guys, and high water years are bad for them," he said. "So this year, they’ve been packing on the weight and growing at a tremendous rate."

Not only does the presence of this nonnative species upset the balance of the ecosystem, but it can also pose a problem for boaters in the area, as the fish habitually jump out of the water and hit them.

"When a 20-pound fish hits you in the head, it’s like getting hit with a bowling ball," Chapman said.

The new research facility, dedicated in honor of former research center director Richard A. Schoettger, houses highly specialized laboratories. It includes a wet, microscopy and microbiology laboratories and terrestrial environmental chambers for plants and animals, Rip Shively, the center's director, said.

"In the past, we had laboratory capability in several buildings that initially were never designed for laboratory space — they were constructed in a series of progressions as funds and need allowed," he said. "What this facility has that is so important is a state-of-the-art facility for the work we do on metals chemistry. It also has a state-of- the-art wet lab facility to do a lot of our exposure experiments."

Eight of these facilities were demolished and consolidated into the new building, and the project was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Its construction invested $12 million in Columbia and the surrounding area by employing approximately 30 contractors and 200 people for its construction, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, Columbia City Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe stressed the economic benefits of the lab and praised the research center's mission.

"We appreciate your diligent and dedicated work to solve environmental problems that help improve and preserve the natural world upon which we live and depend," she said.

Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt stressed the importance of the center's aquatic research.

"The large river systems are basically the arteries of the globe," she said. "They bring the lifeblood, water, and their ecosystems are what keep those rivers clean and what keep our planet habitable."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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