USC Aiken graduate Chris Leaphart spent the last several weeks examining American coots – one of the many organisms that dwell on the Savannah River Site – to determine the radiocesium levels each coot carries.

Leaphart was one of nine students to intern with the Savannah River Ecology Lab, or SREL, this summer. The interns presented their findings to fellow researchers on Tuesday.

Leaphart said migratory waterfowl, which includes coots, pose a serious risk of exposing humans to cesium once they leave the Site. Therefore, there is a need to know how high the radiocesium level is in each of the organisms, he said.

“We were able to show in our data that the radiocesium levels are declining and by the year 2029, the median level will be at a line that makes them safe,” said Leaphart.

His advisor, James Beasley, said the study took place at a pond on the site that was adjacent to the reactors. The pond received some contamination from the reactor in the 1960s, he said, which urged initial studies in the 1970s.

“Chris’s work is a follow up to that to see what those levels look like now compared to then,” Beasley said. “Cesium decays overtime and he concluded that by 2029, it should be at normal levels.”

Both Leaphart and fellow intern, Austin Coleman, have been invited to continue working with SREL for a few extra months. Coleman’s internship included removing 193 tadpoles from the wetlands area to test them for a common disease that’s prevalent among 27 percent of the wetland area.

All 193 tadpoles tested negative for the disease, chytridiomycosis, which Coleman said is surprising.

“It was shocking to see that since the disease is prevalent in the wetlands area,” he said.

His advisor, Stacey Lance, said the study is important because the disease is causing mass extinction of amphibians all over the world.

“We know it was there two years ago and now we’re not seeing it, so it’s really important to understand what increases the disease and how to prevent it,” she said.

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June 2013. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.