Science Horizons intern: Mesha Boyer

As a child growing up in Cornwall, Ontario, Mesha Boyer says she was a “little steward” of the environment. With her local Girls Guides club, she participated in shoreline clean-ups on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Now, in her work with the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences, she remains committed to restoring the river as best she can.

Mesha was hired by the non-profit institute as an assistant project co-ordination intern for the Great St. Lawrence River Clean-up, an initiative which in 2016 removed an impressive 12 tonnes of waste from the river’s bottom and shores. The internship was supported by the Colleges & Institutes Canada’s Clean Tech (CiCan) Internship Program, which is funded by Environment Canada’s Science Horizons program.

As a graduate from the environment technician program, Mesha has a good understanding of our organization’s objectives. She also has her own passion for environmental issues and green technologies.

- Christina Collard, Program Leader, Administration & Fundraising, St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences.

Local divers from the Seaway Valley Divers club removed silted tires, spoke-less bicycles, shopping carts, corroded metal pipes, freezers and office machinery from the harbour and river. Community volunteers with “Adopt-a-Street” and local organizations such as the Akwesasne Boys and Girls Club scoured the shoreline for discarded bottles, cups, and even furniture. Debris from the cleanup was separated into salvageable materials and waste.

Mesha helped recruit and organize some 400 volunteers and provided them with safety training and technical support. She also maintained a collection log from the five clean-up days and submitted the information to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup database. Last year’s clean-up was so successful that the St. Lawrence River Institute is receiving calls from other communities in Canada and the U.S., says Karen Cooper, the institute’s head of communications. “We are seen as a model,” she says delightedly.

Mesha graduated as an environmental technician from the St. Lawrence College’s Cornwall campus on the north shore of the river. The program includes studies in chemistry, biology, ecology, mathematics and statistics as well as freshwater ecology, ecotoxicology, waste management and in-field assessments. As part of the college’s work placement program she gained valuable work experience as a compliance officer at Lafleche Environmental Inc., a waste management company.

 Mesha Boyer in front of the St. Lawrence River Harbour, Cornwall, site of last year’s clean-up.

“As a graduate from the environmental technician program, Mesha has a good understanding of our organization’s objectives,” says the institute’s Christina Collard. “She also has her own passion for environmental issues and green technologies.” The institute has hired several interns through CiCan and ECOCanada, Science Horizons’ delivery agents.

After a year studying graphic design at St. Lawrence College’s Kingston campus, Mesha took a break and worked in a series of jobs in hospitality, retail, photography and logistics. She traveled in Canada and gave birth to a son (she’s a single mother). Shortly after she returned to St. Lawrence College to study environmental technologies. During this time, she chaired her school’s “Green Team” which organized the collection of more than six tonnes of electronic waste within the City of Cornwall. The project was good preparation for the river clean-up project.

Mesha considers the biggest challenge for the clean-up was getting the message out to the local community. “The clean-up will be repeated this year and we aim to involve up to 1,000 volunteers throughout the summer,” she says. There will also be an educational component this time, she adds. A film based on the 2016 clean-up - “A Great River Runs Through Us” - is available to schools and youth groups. “Of course, the best way to keep the river and the community free of debris,” Mesha says, “is to prevent littering in the first place. To achieve this, we need to change people’s mindsets about waste.”

Mesha is proud of the work achieved by the clean-up committee, which includes members from environmentally minded organizations in Cornwall and the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. “None of the individuals who sit on the committee is fighting for recognition,” she says. “We are all equal partners who value the work of each other. This allows creativity to flow and the opportunity for our work to flourish.”

Working with the nearby Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne that straddles the Ontario, Quebec and U.S. borders, Cornwall’s Great St. Lawrence River Clean-up was not without its challenges.

“We wanted to remove all of the waste in the area but we are aware that the sediments in this part of the river are significantly contaminated through legacy industrial use,” says Mesha Boyer of the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences.

Cornwall was an industrial hub for more than 100 years and although mercury discharges into the river have been discontinued, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identifies this part of the river as “an Area of Concern”. Developed 10 years ago, the Cornwall Sediment Strategy aims to restrict sediment movement in specified locations on the river bottom. The policy is intended to control activities that might disturb the riverbed in the hopes that cleaner sediments will bury more heavily polluted deposits.

“There are hot spots within the Area of Concern that the institute is continuously monitoring,” says Mesha. “Removing debris from these areas requires rigorous hazardous materials procedures that we looked into but were not equipped to undertake. As a result, 1.2 kilometres of the target area were off-limits but we were still able to clean up over 5 kilometres of shoreline.”

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