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Purifying Third World starts in Braddock

by Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

My friend Richard "Dick" Wukich has done a lot of things and been to a lot of places in his 66 years. A passionate do-gooder with a thirst for justice, the North Braddock native doesn't have a lot of patience for slow-moving systems or the kind of well-meaning inefficiency that dooms folks to one form of deprivation or another.

When he isn't teaching ceramics or firing up the kiln at Slippery Rock University, where he has taught since 1968, Dick can usually be found in some corner of the Third World doing what good Samaritans do when doing nothing isn't an option.

Dick Wukich is passionate about a lot of things, but providing safe drinking water for the 1.1 billion people on the planet who don't have access to it rates higher than most. But Dick wouldn't be true to his roots in the rough-and-tumble Mon Valley if he wasn't also thinking about Braddock's role in purifying drinking water around the world.

Dick didn't invent the low-cost filtration system that resembles a weirdly tapered flower pot, but he couldn't be more excited about it if it had jumped fully formed from his own brain. Elegant in its simplicity, it has been embraced by chapters of the Rotary Club worldwide because of the low cost of producing and distributing it.

Not long ago, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper caught up with Dick in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake had deposited yet another layer of misery on that island's inhabitants. Dick explained the concept behind the water filter system he hopes Braddock's chronically underemployed residents will mass produce for disaster victims and people who need clean water anywhere:

"It's made out of clay and sawdust and it's formed on a machine," Dick told the intrepid anchor. "It's made upside down. You pour dirty water in the top. As the water flows through these various cracks and crevices, it inevitably has to be passing by these particles of [colloidal] silver. [The silver] radiates and kills the bacteria. It saves lives."

Dick has been making the ceramic water filters for years and has taught his Slippery Rock students the sweet science of creating an effective bacteria-killing microfilter. He has taken the water filters to Central America, Africa and the Middle East. The success rate is the same from Nicaragua to Iraq. This is where Braddock figures into the picture.

"We're going to train people to make [the water filters] in Braddock," he said. "Braddock will be our worldwide training center to make filters to save people who are less fortunate. We're entrepreneurs. We'll get [workers in Braddock] set up, teach them the technology, quality control and marketing. We can build an industry right here."

Dick and Jeff Schwarz, an adjunct professor at Allegheny College, have already turned the basement of the Braddock Carnegie Library into a training center for teenagers and retirees eager to learn how to make the life-saving devices.

"I took 125 filters to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti," Dick told me over breakfast recently. "We need 3 million filters to satisfy Haiti. There are so many places around the world where children are dying from water-borne disease. These filters can make a difference."

Even if they could get production levels up dramatically, the molded filters only last a year, so the need will be constant until the communities most at risk from contaminated water learn how to make their own filters. Dick believes there will always be a need for the kind of life-saving industry he wants to see the people of Braddock build in their community.

"If you make one filter — just one that saves one life — that would probably be considered statistically insignificant," Dick said, "unless it was your kid."

Like one of the prophets in the Old Testament, Dick Wukich not only wants justice to roll down like water, he believes access to clean water is a fundamental human right. If you're a like-minded person and want to learn more about how he and the volunteers in Braddock are going about creating a self-sustaining business, you can reach him at

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