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Sonoma County Gazette

Bioremediation —
Cleaning Up Toxins After the Fires

Dec 29, 2017


By Will Bakx

The October firestorms that blazed through Sonoma County deeply affected everyone and left us grappling with the question of how to respond. Having evacuated twice myself and narrowly escaped losing my house, I was searching for a way I could contribute and help heal our community.

A discussion on Facebook got my attention. People were wondering how we could deal with toxins that were released during the fire and posing a threat to our soil, water, and air. Remediation steps had already begun. Wattles — elongated socks filled with straw — were laid out to protect contaminated water from flowing into the storm drains. But that wasn’t enough. We needed to find material for the wattles that would actually decompose and absorb toxins and protect our soil and environment.

Erik Ohlsen of the Permaculture Skills Center and Permaculture Artisans built on a growing idea: use natural microbes to assist the cleanup effort. In other words, make new wattles and inoculate them with microbes. Gourmet Mushrooms in Graton had the mushroom substrate needed to inoculate new wattles and was happy to contribute it to the remediation cause.

That was great, but how would we produce these new wattles? A way I could support the fire recovery emerged. As owner of Sonoma Compost, I had been working with West Marin Compost and knew they had — of all things — a wattle maker! The owners didn’t skip a beat: they immediately donated wattle socks, feedstock, and the labor to make all the wattles we needed.

Now the only thing missing was straw to “feed” the mushrooms we would put in the wattles. I’d noticed that just down the street from West Marin Compost, Lafranchi Ranch was wrapping up a pumpkin patch, leaving lots of straw bales behind. They were happy to give them to the wattle project.

A Fire Remediation Action Coalition page was developed on Facebook. Volunteers were recruited to help construct the wattles. Chris Brokate with Clean River Alliance took the lead organizing volunteers to install the wattles. Coordination was set up with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control BoardSonoma County Recovers, and others. Dr. Robert Rawson, former manager of the Graton sewer district and now with BioRemediation International Corp stepped in to lend his expertise to the project. In an unbelievably short amount of time, and thanks to tremendous community involvement, all the ingredients were in place. The Bioremediation Wattle Program was underway.

So what exactly does bioremediation mean? It means adjusting environmental conditions to stimulate the growth of microorganisms that rid water and soil of pollutants. Simply put, it means cleaning up toxics, often in a less expensive and more sustainable way than standard remediation efforts. In this program, bioremediation is accomplished by using microbes to break down toxins that have leached into the environment from the fire and providing decomposed organic matter for the metals to bind with, thereby immobilizing them.

The compost in the bioremediation wattles provides a rich community of microorganisms, both bacteria and fungi. These microbes see many of the carbon-based toxins as a food source. To get to the energy of the carbon, the microorganisms release enzymes to break down the toxic compounds. The inoculation of the wattles with fungi gives an extra boost, as the branching hyphae of the fungi greatly increase the surface area of treatment.

 While the heat of the fire may destroy or evaporate a lot, a cocktail of substances stays behind and new toxins never produced by man may be formed. We may find fuel and oil products, pesticides, fertilizers, dioxins from burned plastics, heavy metals, and many other environmentally hazardous byproducts. Bioremediation effectively addresses this problem.

It’s been wonderful to see everyone step up to support our community after the devastating fires. Government, nonprofits, businesses, and residents have come together, showing resilience and a resolve to rise from this historical disaster. Sonoma County has earned its rank as truly exceptional — for its land and its generous, intelligent, and supportive residents. But, of course, the road to recovery is long.

The Bioremediation Wattle Program is a big step in the right direction, and one I’m honored to be part of.At this point, however, there is still a missing link: to assess the effects of the bioremediation we have put in place along Coffey Creek and hope to install along Pauline Creek. This would require testing. UC Davis is able to test water, air, soil, and plant tissue through non-target high-resolution mass spectrometry. They can test for toxic compounds formed during the high heat and map what toxins are present, thereby helping determine which toxins need to be addressed. Not surprisingly, such analyses are not cheap, about $1,500 per test.

MycoremediationWe anticipate the program to continue throughout the rainy season. And, although not good for fire risk, this dry spell we have had has been wonderful for the cleanup, reducing the amount of toxins on the ground before they are washed away. The effect of the remediation wattles has been amplified by our team placing them alongside the existing conventional wattles.This way the inoculated wattles also inoculate the adjacent standard wattles.

Sonoma Compost, West Marin Compost, and Gourmet Mushroom are currently working together on developing a specific strain of fungi that is more targeted to the feedstock produced at the compost site. All the bioremediation wattles for public cleanup efforts have been donated; however, soon wattles will be made available for sale to individuals who want them for their private use.

If you would like more information or to help in these continuing efforts to protect the watershed after the fire, please visit Fire Remediation Action Coalition on Facebook.

Will Bakx, co-owner of Sonoma Compost/Renewable Sonoma, is a soil scientist, educator, and consultant who has been dedicated to sustaining Sonoma County soil for nearly 30 years.


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