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Measuring water contamination in New Zealand

3/29/12

The magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011 is considered to be one of the island country’s most deadly and expensive disasters, killing 185 people and costing an estimated $30 million.

Less than one year after the environmental disaster, Northeastern University sophomore biology and environmental science double major Michael Orbank began helping to restore order to the devastated city through a co-op with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, a government-run organization that provides services in environmental health and forensic science.

In his role, Orbank collects and analyzes water samples throughout southeast New Zealand. Infrastructure damage caused by the earthquake polluted the Avon River, which, he said, is now filled with extremely high levels of toxins such as E. coli.

“The earthquake knocked out much of the city and knocked down much of the water sanitation levels,” Orbank said, noting that his data is used by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health to help solve the contaminated water crisis. “You really don’t want E. coli in your drinking water or your playing water.”

Orbank also analyzes pollution caused by New Zealand’s changing economy. Increased dairy farming, for example, has contaminated rural wells with waste from the growing livestock population.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native lives in a student dormitory at the University of Canterbury. He joined several campus clubs that have given him the opportunity to see much of the nation’s lush, green landscape.

His research in New Zealand, he said, is the first step toward his goal of forging a career that combines his interest in biology and environmental science. “If you put my two majors together, you’ve got environmental biologist, which is a really cool profession,” Orbank said.