a FUNGUS that EATS OIL SPILLS
“What Stamets has discovered is that the enzymes and acids that mycelium produces to decompose this debris are superb at breaking apart hydrocarbons – the base structure common to many pollutants. So, for instance, when diesel oil-contaminated soil is inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia, the soil loses its toxicity in just eight weeks.”
Shroom Vacuum / by Emily Linroth / 2008
Lurking in leaf piles and crouching on logs is one of nature’s smallest superheroes. It prefers shade to the spotlight, and eats garbage with a vengeance. Behold: the mighty mushroom. After centuries of trampling the most efficient recyclers nature has to offer, humans are finally beginning to see mushrooms as more than a gourmet meal. A new tactic in environmental cleanup known as mycoremediation uses fungi to transform environmental contaminants into harmless compounds. “Humans seem very good at messing things up and throwing systems out of balance,” said Erin Moore, a member of the Northwest Mushroomers’ Association. “Why not try to use tools like fungi to put them back into balance?”
Myco means “mushroom,” and remediation is the process of restoring something to its optimal state. Mycoremediation is a part of mycorestoration, a term coined by mycologist (fungi researcher) Paul Stamets, to describe the use of fungi in aiding the environment. That’s right. Mushrooms eat more than just rotting wood. Give them oil, arsenic or even nerve gas, and they’ll give you back water and carbon dioxide. Mushrooms are nature’s prime decomposers, and they’re very good at what they do. They eat by releasing enzymes capable of breaking down substances from which they gain nutrients. Their usual diet consists of plants and other organic, or carbon-based, organisms.
Since many toxins have similar chemical makeup to plants, fungi can break them down as well. These include petroleum products, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals with estrogen, and even neurotoxins. Once the contaminants are broken down, the mushrooms are safe to eat. Mushrooms can also absorb heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. A species called oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, have a particularly high tolerance for areas heavily contaminated with cadmium and mercury. This means oyster mushrooms can grow in high-mercury areas and still decompose other pollutants. Mushrooms that ingest heavy metals are no longer safe to eat, because the toxins remain concentrated in the mushroom instead of being broken down. For this reason, heavy-metal laden mushrooms must be removed after absorption to prevent the metals from reentering the area when the mushrooms die and decompose.
Oyster mushrooms gained national attention after the Nov. 7, 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, when nearly 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel were dumped into San Francisco Bay. To test the potential of mycoremediation, workers mopped up oily beaches with mats of human hair, which is extremely absorbent. Oyster mushroom spores were introduced and began growing on the mats, decomposing the oil. The result: water, carbon dioxide, compost material suitable for highway landscaping and restored beaches. Once the oyster mushrooms run out of food, they will die off and decompose naturally, posing no threat to the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mycoremediation was first attempted in Bellingham in 1998, when Stamets and a team of researchers from Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Sequim, Wash. treated plots in a contaminated truck maintenance yard operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Of the four plots, one received mushroom spores, two received bacterial treatments and one was left as a control. After four weeks, the plots not treated with spores remained unchanged, but the spore-rich plot had sprouted a large crop of oyster mushrooms. Over the next five weeks, the mushrooms matured, reproduced and then died. Their life cycle attracted insects, birds and other animals, and life flourished on the once-dead plot.
Mycorestoration was also used to filter contaminated water after Hurricane Katrina’s rampage through the Gulf Coast States in 2005, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Mushrooms are also capable of breaking down infectious agents such as E.coli and staphylococcus bacteria, according to Stamets’ book “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” Fungi have also been used at Superfund sites, some of the most toxic hazardous waste sites, throughout the nation.
Mycoremediation has potential for future expansion. Mushrooms could be used to break down pesticides released from Whatcom County farms before they reach rivers and the food chain. Fungi could take up heavy metals from the Georgia Pacific site, restoring the land more rapidly to pave way for Bellingham’s future waterfront development. Mycoremediation has many benefits compared to traditional cleanup processes, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Since mycoremediation can be carried out at the contaminated location, the site doesn’t need to be disrupted, preventing the release of more toxins. Also, mycoremediation is a completely natural process requiring minimal supervision, making it much cheaper than more institutionalized methods such as incineration.
The success of fungi is due to their nature and their structure, according to Dr. Fred Rhoades, a biology professor and avid mycologist at Western Washington University. Fungi are different from plants because they cannot produce their own food. Because of this, many species work with plants or bacteria to break down other substances into nutrients, which they then absorb. “It’s a fantastic relationship,” said Moore. “These fungi actually grow on the very fine, absorbing tree roots, just like a glove on a hand.” The fungi carry nutrients and water to the trees, which feed sugars to the fungi.
Fungi also have a much different structure than plants. Although the mushroom itself is the most popular image we have of a fungus, it actually only makes up a small part of the organism. The mushrooms we see are fruiting bodies – they produce spores, much like the fruiting parts of a plant produce seeds. Mushrooms are part of a larger organism known as the mycelium. All fungi are made up of mycelium, even those that do not form mushrooms. “The mushroom is like the apple, and the mycelium is like the apple tree,” Rhoades said.
Mycelia (plural of mycelium) are complex webs of hair-like fibers that resemble the neurological pathways in the human brain. Although only one cell wall thick, mycelia are responsible for cycling nutrients through the fungus and its surrounding environment, according to Stamets’ book. Mycelium mats can grow very large and connect entire forests in a nutrient-sharing network. One specimen covered more than 2,400 acres on an Oregon mountaintop; possibly the largest living organism, according to the journal “Nature.”
Some fungi will decompose anything that provides them with nutrients, Rhoades said, but others are picky eaters. Mycoremediation occurs most successfully when mycelia of local mushrooms are bred to target specific contaminants, according to Stamets’ book. Since mycoremediation is an emerging field, plenty of testing must be done before it can be used on a wide scale, according to Stamets’ book. Mushroom enthusiast Angus Tierney of Evergreen State College, Wash. believes mycoremediation would profit both the environment and the mushrooms themselves. “All life on earth benefits from a toxin-free environment, including mushrooms,” Tierney said. “If mushrooms were extensively used in this way, it could change many minds that correlate them with putrid rot and poison into seeing how mushrooms are healing.”
email : paulstamets [at] gmail [dot] com
Adapted from “Earth’s Natural Internet” by Paul Stamets / Fall 1999
“From a piece of tissue the size of one tenth of your little fingernail, what we call a clone, cells can be grown exponentially into millions of pounds of mushrooms in as little as several months. More than 10% of the growing medium or “substrate” (straw, sawdust, compost, most agricultural and forest debris) can be converted into a protein- and vitamin-rich food. Not only are these mushrooms nutritious, they have demonstrated abilities in enhancing the human immune system, and they produce a slew of natural antibiotics. Yet it is the residual mycelium in that substrate that holds the greatest potential for ecological rehabilitation.
Mycelia can serve as unparalleled biological filters. When I first moved to my property, I installed an outdoor mushroom bed in a gulch leading to a saltwater beach where clams and oysters were being commercially cultivated. An inspection showed that the outflow of water from my property was jeopardizing the quality of my neighbor’s shellfish with the bacteria count close to the legal limit. The following year, after the mushroom beds were colonized with mycelium, the coliform count had decreased to nearly undetectable levels. This led to the term I have coined “mycofiltration”, the use of fungal mats as biological filters.
Mycelium produces extracellular enzymes and acids that break down recalcitrant molecules such as lignin and cellulose, the two primary components of woody plants. Lignin peroxidases dismantle the long chains of hydrogen and carbon, converting wood into simpler forms, on the path to decomposition. By circumstance, these same enzymes are superb at breaking apart hydrocarbons, the base structure common to oils, petroleum products, pesticides, PCBs, and many other pollutants.
For the past four years I have been working with Battelle Laboratories, a non-profit foundation, whose mission is to use science to improve environmental health. Battelle is a major player in the bioremediation industry, and widely used by the United States and other governments in finding solutions to toxic wastes. The marine science laboratory of Battelle, Sequim, Washington became interested, as their mandate is to improve the health of the marine ecosystem. Under the stewardship of Dr. Jack Word, we began a series of experiments employing the strains from my mushroom gene library, many of which were secured through collecting specimens while hiking in the old growth forests of the Olympic and Cascade mountains. We now have applied for a patent utilizing mycelial mats for bioremediation, a process we have termed “mycoremediation”.
After several years, and redundant experiments to prove to naysayers that our data was valid, we have made some astonishing discoveries. (I am continually bemused that humans “discover” what nature has known all along.) The first significant study showed that a strain of Oyster mushrooms could break down heavy oil. A trial project at a vehicle storage center controlled by the Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) enlisted the techniques from several, competing bioremediation groups. The soil was blackened with oil and reeked of aromatic hydrocarbons. We inoculated one berm of soil approximately 8 feet x 30 feet x 3 feet high with mushroom spawn while other technicians employed a variety of methods, ranging from bacteria to chemical agents. After 4 weeks, the tarps were pulled back from each test pile. The first piles employing the other techniques were unremarkable. Then the tarp was pulled from our pile, and gasps of astonishment and laughter welled up from the observers. The hydrocarbon-laden pile was bursting with mushrooms! Oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed across the pile. Analyses showed that more than 95% of many of the PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were destroyed, reduced to non-toxic components, and the mushrooms were also free of any petroleum products.
After 8 weeks, the mushrooms had rotted away, and then came another startling revelation. As the mushrooms rotted, flies were attracted. (Sciarid, Phorid and other “fungus gnats” commonly seek out mushrooms, engorged themselves with spores, and spread the spores to other habitats). The flies became a magnet for other insects, which in turn brought in birds. Apparently the birds brought in seeds. Soon ours was an oasis, the only pile teeming with life! We think we have found what is called a “keystone” organism, one that facilitates, cascade of other biological processes that contribute to habitat remediation. Critics, who were in favor of using plants (as in “phytoremediation”) and/or bacteria, reluctantly became de facto advocates of our process since the mushrooms opened the door for this natural sequencing.”
Cleaning up toxic spills, stopping poison-gas attacks, curing deadly diseases…
by Linda Baker / Nov 25, 2002
Once you’ve heard “renaissance mycologist” Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you’ll never look at the world — not to mention your backyard — in the same way again. The author of two seminal textbooks, “The Mushroom Cultivator” and “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms,” Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. His convictions about the expanding role that mushrooms will play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms — which he stores in several on- and off-site gene libraries.
Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms were largely ignored by the mainstream medical and environmental establishment. Or, as he puts it, “they suffered from biological racism.” But Stamets is about to thrust these higher fungi into the 21st century. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of “mycoremediation” and “mycofiltration” technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein. “Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration,” says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry. “If we just stay at the crest of the mycelial wave, it will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications.”
A former logger turned scanning-electron microscopist, Stamets is not your typical scientist — a role he obviously relishes. “Some people think I’m a mycological heretic, some people think I’m a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I’m crazy,” he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with wide-ranging — and provocative — mycological metaphors, among them his belief that “fungal intelligence” provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet. In a recent interview, Stamets also spoke mysteriously of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the “life box,” his plan for “regreening the planet” using fungi. “It’s totally fun, totally revolutionary. It’s going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children,” he says. “And it’s going to be the biggest story of the decade.”
Statements like those make it tempting to dismiss Stamets as either chock-full of hubris or somewhat deluded. But while many academic mycologists tend to question both his style and his methods, Stamets’ status as an innovative entrepreneur is hard to dispute. “Paul has a solid grounding in cultivation and has expanded from that base to show there are other ways of using and cultivating mushrooms than just for food,” says Gary Lincoff, author of “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.” “These are relatively new ideas … but Paul’s got a large spread where he can have experiments going on under his control. And he’s getting big-name people to back him.”
An advisor and consultant to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and a 1998 recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award, Stamets has made converts out of more than one researcher in the mainstream medical and environmental communities. “He’s the most creative thinker I know,” says Dr. Donald Abrams, the assistant director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams says he became interested in the medicinal properties of mushrooms after hearing one of Stamets’ lectures. Stamets is now a co-investigator on a grant proposal Abrams is authoring on the anti-HIV properties of oyster mushrooms. Jack Word, former manager of the marine science lab at Battelle Laboratories in Sequim, Wash., calls Stamets “a visionary.” Stamets takes bigger, faster leaps than institutional science, acknowledges Word, who, along with Stamets and several other Battelle researchers, is an applicant on a pending mycoremediation patent. “But most of what Paul sees has eventually been accepted by outside groups. He definitely points us in the right direction.”
Although mycoremediation sounds “Brave New World”-ish, the concept behind it is decidedly low tech: think home composting, not genetic engineering. Most gardeners know that a host of microorganisms convert organic material such as rotting vegetables, decaying leaves and coffee grounds into the nutrient-rich soil required for plant growth. Fungi play a key role in this process. In fact, one of their primary roles in the ecosystem is decomposition. (Hence the killer-fungus scenario of many a science fiction novel, not to mention the moldy bread and bath tiles that are the bane of modern existence.) The same principle is at work in mycoremediation. “We just have a more targeted approach,” says Stamets. “And choosing the species [of fungi] that are most effective is absolutely critical to the success of the project.”
Fungal decomposition is the job of the mycelium, a vast network of underground cells that permeate the soil. (The mushroom itself is the fruit of the mycelium.) Now recognized as the largest biological entities on the planet, with some individual mycelial mats covering more than 20,000 acres, these fungal masses secrete extra cellular enzymes and acids that break down lignin and cellulose, the two main building blocks of plant fiber, which are formed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen. As it turns out, such chains are similar enough to the base structure of all petroleum products, pesticides, and herbicides so as to make it possible for fungi to break them down as well. A couple of years ago Stamets partnered with Battelle, a major player in the bioremediation industry, on an experiment conducted on a site owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation in Bellingham. Diesel oil had contaminated the site, which the mycoremediation team inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia that Stamets had collected from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Two other bioremediation teams, one using bacteria, the other using engineered bacteria, were also given sections of the contaminated soil to test.
Lo and behold. After four weeks, oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed on the mycoremediated soil. After eight weeks, 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had broken down, and the soil was deemed nontoxic and suitable for use in WSDOT highway landscaping. By contrast, neither of the bioremediated sites showed significant changes. “It’s only hearsay,” says Bill Hyde, Stamets’ patent attorney, “but the bacterial remediation folks were crying because the [mycoremediation] worked so fast.” And that, says Stamets, was just the beginning of the end of the story. As the mushrooms rotted away, “fungus gnats” moved in to eat the spores. The gnats attracted other insects, which attracted birds, which brought in seeds.
Call it mycotopia. “The fruit bodies become environmental plateaus for the attraction and succession of other biological communities,” Stamets says. “Ours was the only site that became an oasis of life, leading to ecological restoration. That story is probably repeated all over the planet.” At Fungi Perfecti, a rural compound not far from Aberdeen, Wash., signs warn visitors not to enter without an appointment, and security cameras equipped with motion sensors guard several free-standing laboratories and a mushroom “grow” room. “My concerns are personal safety and commercial espionage,” says Stamets, explaining that competitors and mycological hangers-on (not always a stable lot, apparently) have a tendency to show up unannounced.
Then there’s the small problem of marketing a product associated in some people’s minds with illegal substances. In the late 1970s, Stamets did pioneering research at Evergreen State College on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms; he later published a definitive identification guide: “Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World.” “I drew the line a long time ago,” says Stamets. “But I’ll never be an apologist for that work. Everything I did was covered by a DEA license.”
Today, Stamets spends much of his time cloning wild mushrooms. One of his innovations has been identifying strains of mushrooms with the ability to decompose certain toxins and adapting them to new environments. With the benefit of computer clean-room technology, Stamets introduces samples of toxins to mycelia growing on agar culture, then screens the samples to see if the mycelia are actually metabolizing the toxin. You can actually train the mycelia to grow on different media, he says. As reported in Jane’s Defence Weekly, one of Stamets’ strains was found to “completely and efficiently degrade” chemical surrogates of VX and sarin, the potent nerve gases Saddam Hussein loaded into his warheads. “We have a fungal genome that is diverse and present in the old-growth forests,” says Stamets. “Hussein does not. If you look on the fungal genome as being soldier candidates protecting the U.S. as our host defense, not only for the ecosystem but for our population … we should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense.”
Stamets recently collaborated with WSDOT on another mycoremediation project designed to prevent erosion on decommissioned logging roads, which channel silt and pollutants toward stream beds where salmon are reproducing. In a process Stamets terms “mycofiltration,” bark and wood chips were placed onto road surfaces and inoculated with fungi. The mycelial networks not only helped to build and retain soil but also filtered out pollutants and sediments and thus mitigated negative impacts on the watershed. Stamets envisions myriad uses of mycofiltration, one of which involves bridging the gap between ecological and human health. It’s been more than 70 years since Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold fungus penicillium was effective against bacteria. And yet, complains Stamets, nobody has paid much attention to the antiviral and antibiotic properties of mushrooms — partly because Americans, unlike Asian cultures, think mushrooms are meant to be eaten, not prescribed. But with the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistance in hospitals, says Stamets, “a new game is afoot. The cognoscenti of the pharmaceuticals are now actively, and some secretly, looking at mushrooms for novel medicines.”
Based on a recent study documenting the ability of a mushroom, Polyporus umbellatus, to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria, Stamets has come up with a mycofiltration approach to combating the disease. “We know that these fungi use other microorganisms as food sources,” he says. “We know they’re producing extracellular antibiotics that are effective against a pantheon of disease microorganisms. We can establish sheet composting using fungi that are specific against the malarial parasites. We can then go far in working with developing countries, in articulating mycelial mats specific to the disease vectors in which these things are being bred.” Stamets is currently shopping this idea around to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a front-runner in the effort to provide vaccinations in developing nations.
Mycotechnology is part of a larger trend toward the use of living systems to solve environmental problems and restore ecosystems. One of the best-known examples is John Todd’s “Living Machine,” which uses estuary ecosystems powered by sunlight to purify wastewater. “The idea that a total community is more efficient against contaminants than a single Pac Man bug is gaining acceptance,” says Jack Word, now with MEC Analytical Systems, an environmental consulting firm. The key challenge facing mycotechnologies, he says, is securing funding to demonstrate their large-scale commercial feasibility. Stamets is the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms; he’s spreading the gospel about the power of fungi to benefit the world. Issuing a call to mycological arms, Stamets urges gardeners to inoculate their backyards with mycorrhizae, fungi that enter into beneficial relationships with plant roots, and to grow shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, among the very best decomposers and builders of soil.
But Stamets’ vision doesn’t stop there. In the conference room at Fungi Perfecti, with a 2,000-year-old carved mushroom stone from Guatemala hovering, shamanlike, over him, he explains his far-reaching theory of mycelial structure. “Life exists throughout the cosmos and is a consequence of matter in the universe,” he says. “Given that premise, when you look at the consequence of matter, and the simple premise of cellular reproduction, which forms a string, which forms a web, which then cross-hatches, what do you have? You have a neurological landscape that looks like mycelium. It’s no accident that brain neurons and astrocytes are similarly arranged. It’s no accident that the computer Internet is similarly arranged.”
“I believe the earth’s natural Internet is the mycelial network,” he says. “That is the way of nature. If there is any destruction of the neurological landscape, the mycelial network does not die; it’s able to adapt, recover and change. That’s the whole basis of the computer Internet. The whole design patterns something that has been reproduced through nature and has been evolutionarily successful over millions of years.” The day after being interviewed in late October, Stamets called to point out a New York Times article on self-replicating universes, an article, he suggested, that reinforced his ideas about matter creating life and the generative power of mycelium. In describing the way universes might multiply, the reporter used the following felicitous metaphor: “For some cosmologists, that means universes sprouting from one another in an endless geometric progression, like mushrooms upon mushrooms upon mushrooms.” Where is Stamets going with all this? “I have a strategy for creating ecological footprints on other planets,” he says. “By using a consortium of fungi and seeds and other microorganisms, you could actually seed other planets with little plops. You could actually start keystone species and go to creating vegetation on planets. I think that’s totally doable.”
Five ways mushrooms can save the world
By John Weier / January-March 2009
Bearded and burly, Paul Stamets searches the forest on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula like a bloodhound, peering under fallen trees and sniffing inquisitively at the air. The object of his quest is the Agarikon mushroom—so rare that it can take Stamets, who has spent more than 30 years researching fungi, weeks to locate just one. And when he does—by bushwhacking for hours through untrammeled wilderness until he finds the beehive-shaped mushroom growing on a log or hanging from a towering Douglas fir— it’s worth the effort, Stamets says. For the Agarikon is the Holy Grail in his crusade to prove that fungi can be used to treat health problems ranging from high blood pressure to cancer. And his vision doesn’t end there.
Stamets believes fungi can clean up fuel spills, provide a nontoxic (and more effective) alternative to insecticides, and be the source of a powerful new biofuel. Listen to him talk, and it’s tempting to dismiss the 53-year-old as just another wild-eyed devotee of natural solutions—especially when he describes the web of mycelia (thread-like tendrils beneath the forest floor that form the foundation underlying fungi) as being eerily similar to the structure of the universe and says mycelia form an intelligent network that can sense human footsteps. But one thing sets Stamets apart: many of his ideas have proven scientifically credible.
Stamets is best known as the owner of Fungi Perfecti, a booming mail-order business outside Olympia, Washington, that peddles everything from grow-your-own mushroom kits to mushroom-based dog biscuits. But he considers this a side job that gives him freedom to conduct serious research. Stamets developed an Agarikon strain that University of Illinois researchers say could treat tuberculosis. He has engineered a fungus that wipes out carpenter ants, has used fungi to remove pollution from streams, and has helped the Department of Defense investigate whether fungi can counteract biological weapons. It’s all part of his quest to harness mushrooms as a solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
1. Homeland Security
Two thousand years ago, a Greek pharmacist named Dioscorides described a mushroom that was highly effective in treating consumption. Stamets stumbled upon those first-century writings and began a personal mission to track down Fomitopsis officinalis, agarikon. The Agarikon mushroom is thought to be extinct in Europe and Asia but, fortuitously, still grows in isolated pockets of Stamets’s backyard, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwestern United States. So far, Stamets has painstakingly located dozens of the mushrooms, established more than a dozen Agarikon strains, and sent hundreds of cultures to scientific labs—including several doing research as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Project BioShield.
Among other things, Project BioShield investigates drugs and compounds that could provide new treatments for tuberculosis, smallpox, and other viruses that could be weaponized. Of the thousands of compounds tested, only a tiny percentage have been effective enough to be approved for more comprehensive research, including animal testing. At least two of Stamets’s Agarikon strains have cleared that hurdle; scientists at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, have shown that the extracts selectively attack cowpox and vaccinia viruses, which are closely related to the smallpox virus.
Researchers at the Institute for Tuberculosis Research at the University of Illinois, Chicago, got similar results when they placed Agarikon extract and tuberculosis samples in close quarters. The extract actually stopped the tubercle growth and, in separate tests, was shown to be harmless to mammal cells—an important indicator that it wouldn’t hurt people. For now, that’s happened only in a test tube, but institute director Scott Franzblau says researchers are working to identify the extract’s active compounds and understand exactly what makes the remedy tick. Until then, they won’t know how to compare it to other TB drugs or whether it will make an effective drug at all.
Stamets believes the Agarikon is only the beginning. He’s convinced that mushrooms can cure everything from avian flu to cancer. But to extend his research, Stamets needs to keep generating new extracts from an increasingly diverse array of fungi, which explains why his quest is entangled in another cause: preserving old-growth forests. With Agarikons already rare (it recently took Stamets’s team 20 trips into the forest to find just one), he believes habitat conservation should be a vital part of the effort to cure deadly diseases such as smallpox or bird flu. “We can make the argument that we should save the old-growth forests as a matter of national defense,” Stamets says.
2. A Cultivated Taste for Diesel
In the late 1990s, Stamets and researchers from Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, conducted an experiment to see whether mushrooms could clean up pollution. They grew oyster-mushroom mycelia on wood chips, then sprinkled the chips onto a pile of soil drenched in diesel and other petroleum waste. For comparison, they coated two similar piles with pollution-fighting enzymes and bacteria and used a fourth pile as a control. After leaving the mounds alone for six weeks, Stamets returned to find a result so profound that it led to what he calls “an epiphany of my life.”
“All the other piles were dead, dark, and stinky,” Stamets said in a recent lecture. “Our pile was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms.”
The remarkable transformation was spurred by a natural process that lets fungi consume even the most toxic pollutants. When certain fungi are introduced to a new patch of soil, they release a shower of digestive enzymes. After detecting which ones do the best job breaking down the soil compounds, the fungi mass-produce those enzymes.
To capitalize on this process, Stamets and Battelle’s Jack Word gave fungi petroleum products as their only food source. They then cloned the fungi that did the best job digesting the contaminants and used them in the soil test. The fungi flourished—and that was just the beginning. The mushroom spores attracted insects, which laid eggs that became larvae. The larvae attracted birds, which brought in seeds. Soon, plants were sprouting up across the previously polluted mound. “Our pile became an oasis of life,” Stamets said in his lecture.
Stamets has used similar methods to show that fungi can remove everything—from pesticides to nerve gas—from soil and water. For example, he developed a novel way to clean coliform bacteria from streams contaminated by cattle farms. He simply fills burlap bags with wood chips covered in mycelia, then stacks those bags in the streams. As the water filters through the bags, the mycelia release enzymes that digest the bacteria. According to one of Stamets’s patent applications, the method can reduce coliform bacteria by as much as 97 percent; in one test, the mushrooms reduced bacteria from 900 colonies per 100 milliliters of water to just 30 colonies per 100 milliliters.
Stamets now wants to make this natural process part of a national cleanup system. He envisions a network of “mycorestoration” hubs where mycelia are grown before being moved to contaminated land. For this to become reality, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies would have to approve it as a standard cleanup practice. And that might be a tall order.
Word says public agencies have been skittish about fungal solutions since the late 1970s, when several highly publicized attempts to use white rot fungi to clean up contaminants ended in failure. “We have an uphill battle when we try to convince others that [our methods are different from] that process,” Word says.
3. Ants on ’Shrooms
When carpenter ants invaded Stamets’s home, he didn’t call Terminix. Instead, he went to his lab and engineered an insect-eradicating fungus.
His experiment rested on a long-known fact: certain fungi can infect and kill ants and termites. But, to protect their colonies, these insects have devised morbid ways of preventing fungal poisons from spreading. Ants, for example, will identify an infected individual, then decapitate it or isolate it in a side tunnel. Companies have tried for years to come up with fungal killers that subvert these defenses. Those efforts were largely unsuccessful—until Stamets developed an ingenious solution reminiscent of the Trojan horse.
Stamets developed a fungus that is not only deadly to ants but also waits to form spores. Since ants don’t see spores when they encounter the fungus, they don’t identify it as poison. Rather, they actually mistake it for food and carry it back to their queen. By the time the fungus sporulates, it’s too late to fend it off. The fungus has already spread throughout the colony’s ants.
Stamets has received several patents for the fungal pesticide and says just five grams of the stuff can wipe out a home infestation. Even better, he claims the nontoxic solution is harmless to humans. Still, Stamets has to work out a few kinks before the product can hit the mass market.
Roger Gold, professor of urban etymology at Texas A&M, points out that it’s hard to maintain unique fungal strains over long periods of time, which could make it hard to scale up production. Stamets will also need to navigate the EPA’s approval process, an enterprise that can cost millions of dollars. He says he’s had interest from investors who might foot the bill, but he admits that some of them become hesitant once they take a closer look. Ever the contrarian, Stamets interprets those doubts as reassurance that he’s on the right course. “The fact that there are people who say this will never work is proof I’m onto something unique and novel,” he says.
4. Mail Fertility
One of Stamets’s newest schemes would use mushrooms, plants, and the U.S. Postal Service to mitigate climate change. Stamets has developed a cardboard panel dubbed the “Life Box” that’s impregnated with seeds and spores. Once planted in the ground, the panels will give rise to urban forests that soak up CO2, Stamets predicts.
Each panel contains an assortment of tree or vegetable seeds, and mycelia are added to help the seeds flourish. (Many mycelia have symbiotic relationships with plants, providing them with nutrients and water. The plants return the favor by delivering shade and food.) Sized to fit in the bottom of a standard mailing package, the panels can easily be added to mail-order shipments; whenever someone orders a copy of Stamets’s book Mycelium Running, a panel is dropped into the shipping box.
Stamets envisions recipients running out to plant the panels in their yards, giving rise to trees. It might be optimistic to think all Life Box recipients will automatically stick the panels into the ground—people can be pretty picky about their landscaping—but Stamets thinks his invention has a bright future. He has already sent the panels to refugee camps, where they could sprout corn, beans, or other food crops, and he hopes big-name retailers will someday include panels with all their shipments. “We get all these cardboard boxes in the mail,” Stamets says. “Why not turn them into food or habitat?”
5. Fungus Fuel
If Stamets’s utopian solutions ever become reality, the world will face a problem far less appetizing than the ’shrooms themselves: mountains of stinky mushroom waste. That’s because mass-producing fungal extracts would require large-scale facilities to grow mycelia on wood chips and other organic matter. Once the enzymes and other beneficial compounds were harvested, thousands of tons of the organic matter would be left to rot, and this is where Stamets’s quirky vision completes its circle. He even has a plan for how to use what would be the smelly byproduct of his success: use it to solve the global energy crisis.
When fungal sugars are mixed with yeast and other active ingredients, they turn into “myconol”—a fuel no different from the ethanol now being blended with gasoline to power cars. Stamets is working to perfect the conversion process and estimates that it takes about 48 kilograms of mycelia-laced material to produce 3.5 liters of fuel. He says myconol will be his research facility’s sole fuel source within two years. As usual with Stamets, that’s just one small step toward an earth-changing goal: he also intends to sell myconol conversion kits on his Web site, building grass-roots support for a nationwide program to fuel everything from factories to cars—not with coal or oil, but with fungus.
SEE ALSO : HAIR MATS
Why such low-tech solutions as hair mats and mushrooms may be the answer to oil-spill woes
by Alastair Bland / 01.09.08
You are what you eat—unless you’re an oyster mushroom. In that case, you can indulge in some of the most toxic, noxious petroleum products available and turn them into delicious, photogenic morsels that go wonderfully in white wine cream sauces and Japanese stir-fries with not a carcinogen remaining. Called mycoremediation, this impressive skill of the oyster mushroom has gained substantial press in the wake of the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, and many environmental activists believe that, if pursued by biotechnology developers, mycoremediation could completely rewrite how to handle the aftermath of future spills.
Mycologists have been speculating for years on the possibility of someday employing oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, in toxic-waste cleanup projects, and when the freighter Cosco Busan scraped the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of sludgy bunker fuel, mushroom biologists from Monterey to Seattle quickly mobilized. They partnered with the San Francisco nonprofit Matter of Trust, secured a small plot of federal land in the Presidio near the Golden Gate Bridge and proceeded to spearhead a historic experiment of oil-hungry mushrooms that has attracted nationwide media scrutiny. “Nature has all the solutions. We just haven’t been paying attention,” says Matter of Trust executive director Lisa Gautier, who has been laboring tirelessly since the day of the spill, becoming somewhat of an authority on the arcane subjects of ship fuel and fungi in the process. “In nature, there really isn’t any waste. All materials get dealt with, and it’s just a matter of harnessing the technology.”
Harnessing the powers of oyster mushrooms is exactly what Gautier and a team of mycologists have done. Two months have passed since the oil spill, and there now grows a healthy colony of large and vigorous hand-sized oyster mushrooms at the Presidio project site. Scientists, who plan to run chemical analyses of the substrate beneath the mushrooms and the mushrooms themselves, expect to find few to no hydrocarbons or other trace elements common to petroleum products remaining. The mushrooms are sprouting from eight experimental 5-by-5-foot cubicles partitioned from each other with bales of hay and rubber pond liners each filled with varying mixtures of straw, sawdust, grain, oil and oyster-mushroom mycelium, the vinous, underground rootlike matter that constitutes the greater mushroom organism. Two control blocks, which were not implanted with any mushroom spores, have shown no notable activity. The experiment demonstrates how simple it could be to implement a brand-new procedure for detoxifying contaminated soil and turning it into harmless compost.
The essence of mycoremediation occurs underground, amid the tangly mycelium. In their day-to-day life, mushrooms eat forest-floor plant matter, and in doing so they break down cellulose and lignin, which occur side by side in the cell walls of plants. This plant matter is composed of hydrogen and carbon, just like petroleum products, and for the oyster mushroom there is little difference on a microscopic level between eating wood and eating nasty, sticky bunker oil; it’s all just hydrogen and carbon. Once these atoms are isolated, the fungus reconfigures them into carbohydrates, familiar molecules which many of us either love or hate. Meanwhile, fruits pop up above ground, and, assuming no heavy metals are present in the soil, the mushrooms are free of toxins. In time, the mushrooms themselves will be eaten or decay, nature will reabsorb them into the food chain, and any oil in the soil will be gone.
Humans, of course, mostly burn oil—but as concern over carbon emissions, air quality and climate change escalates, mycoremediation may begin to look more and more like the perfect alternative. Securing oil from the water or beach and transporting it to a controlled environment was among the greater obstacles in the Presidio mycoremediation process, but mats made of human hair have served as a superbly effective material for conducting this task. A barber from Huntsville, Ala., named Phil McCrory conceived of this product with a bit of experimentation in the years following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
Since 2002, McCrory’s garden-supply company Smart Grow has commercially marketed dense pads of human hair as commercial and household horticulture aids. The mats insulate soil, help retain groundwater, discourage weed growth and release essential nutrients into the soil, but in November these hair mats served for the first time ever in a large-scale oil-spill cleanup effort.
When the Cosco Busan busted its hull, Matter of Trust—which has worked with McCrory since the late 1990s—had several hundred hair mats on hand, ready for just such an occasion. With several hundred guerrilla volunteers, Lisa Gautier mopped up several thousand pounds of the black tar as it came ashore at Ocean Beach. Dressed in a HazMat suit, Gautier and others wrung the hair mats out into large dumpsters, reusing them multiple times before each was saturated and had to be finally disposed of. Gautier sent the oily refuse away with Unified Command, the government body overseeing the spill’s aftermath, intending to subsequently retrieve as much as she needed as fodder for her experimental brood of oyster mushrooms.
Gautier, meanwhile, made plans to launch the mushroom growing experiment. She has long opposed the standard government-assisted protocols of dumping or incinerating waste oil, and has concurrently admired the work of famed Washington state author, biologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets, who has experimented with oil and oyster mushrooms in the past. Stamets happened to be in town at the time of the spill for the annual Green Festival in San Francisco, and Gautier contacted him three days after the spill, by which time she and her volunteers had secured several thousand pounds of Cosco Busan fuel. Gautier explained the situation, and the two agreed to partner up, along with Stamets’ cohort David Sumerlin and the Mycological Society of San Francisco’s Ken Litchfield. Stamets called home and ordered an immediate shipment of several hundred blocks of oyster mushroom mycelium, and so the stage was set for history.
Of course, the mainstream media was there, too. With Stamets ready to be filmed, a KTVU cameraperson prepared him for taping, urging him to speak on topic. “It’s a wonderful quirk of nature,” Stamets began, “that oyster mushrooms can break down diesel and many petroleum products, the reason being that oyster mushroom mycelium breaks down straw and wood, and wood and straw are composed, as most plants are, of long chains of carbon and hydrogen strung together to form cellulose and lignin. Well, when mycelium breaks down wood and straw, it cleaves the bonds between carbon and hydrogen, and those same carbon-hydrogen bonds are what hold hydrocarbons together—petroleum products. So the mycelium has already devised a way of breaking down those hydrogen-carbon bonds and in doing so breaks the hydrocarbons apart and remanufactures them into sugars, called carbohydrates.”
“I hate to do this to you,” the cameraman said. “We need to simplify this a lot, because it’s mainstream television.” ~
“I thought I did simplify it!” Stamets laughed. “I thought that was very simplified.” He restated the above, using fewer terms from the periodic table and basic chemistry. Gautier, standing by, suggested that he recite it still again—but without saying “mycelium.”
“Say ‘mushroom,'” she suggested.
“Yeah,” agreed the cameraman. “I don’t think everyone has a biology degree.”
“It’s really simple!” cried Stamets, exasperated to his wits’ end. Still, again, he described the experiment in painfully simplified terms. It was just what KTVU needed, and the cameraman packed his gear and departed.
Cleanup crews only collected about 19,000 gallons of oil, leaving some 39,000 gallons at large. Gautier says that the response could have and should have been much more successful. She insists that, had the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) accepted her immediate advances after the accident, when she was there on the double offering McCrory’s human hair mats, the cleanup effort could have secured nearly all the bunker fuel from the water’s surface, before it washed out to sea and before it soiled a hundred miles of Bay Area beaches. “Not only are these hair mats a green method of cleaning up oil, unlike the polypropylene sponges they usually use, but they actually work better,” Gautier says. “There’s no reason not to use them, and if they’d accepted those hair mats and used them in the beginning, they would have had all that oil cleaned up. “But the DFG has their own emergency-response system, which they stick to,” she says. “Anyway, they’re bombarded after every oil spill with green methods that don’t work at all, so they just said, ‘We’ll review your proposal and consider this,’ and went away.”
Hair-mat inventor McCrory agrees, insisting that his product—of which Smart Grow makes about 4 million each year—could have saved the bay. “If they had contained that oil spill and then put the hair mats down, that water would have been as clean as your dining room table.” The DFG’s Yvonne Addassi, who regularly oversees statewide oil-spill cleanups, says that her agency declined to use the hair mats because similar products have in the past been treated with chemicals which, though they facilitate the adsorption of oil, can contaminate water. “I wasn’t familiar with these new hair mats,” Addassi admits. “We thought they could pose their own risk of releasing these chemicals into the water.”
And so the great mass of freshly dumped Cosco Busan bunker oil traveled westward on the outgoing tide. It drifted past the bay’s islands and under the Golden Gate Bridge. It split into northward and southward regiments and began a steady assault on popular beaches, while bureaucrats in various buildings shuffled papers, straightened ties and attended meetings, wondering who should do what, where and when. Mainstream media would herald the weeks after the spill as a triumphant time of teamwork and charitable volunteers, but as is now known, most of the oil was not recovered. Dead and dying birds would wash ashore for weeks afterward.
As the finishing touches were made to the Presidio project site, authorities suddenly revoked their promise to hand over even as little as the 20-gallon sample of fuel which Gautier had collected herself, for the sludge had become potential evidence in the escalating criminal investigation of the incidents just prior to the oil spill. “I really doubt they’re going to bring 18,000 gallons of oil into a courtroom,” Gautier charges. “They could spare 20 gallons for our experiment if they really wanted to help.”
Gautier, Ken Litchfield and others suspect that various parties have been reluctant to see Matter of Trust gain access to the oil, which is being held in an Alameda shipyard, because of its plans to test it for varying intensities of toxicity. The tests would be for scientific purposes—to see how efficiently oyster mushrooms can metabolize particular molecules—but it’s likely, says Gautier, that those responsible for the oil were afraid of legal complications that might arise should the mushroom folks discover a particularly toxic chemical or heavy metal in the Cosco Busan’s fuel.
“There are millions of dollars of damages at hand,” Gautier says, “and we were planning to analyze the oil more than anyone has analyzed it. If we came up with something that hadn’t already been seen, it would have opened a whole new can of worms for them.” With no bunker fuel at the ready but with over 1,000 pounds of ravenous mycelium just dying for something poisonous to eat, the mushroom team went to Plan B: used motor oil, donated just before Thanksgiving, care of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.
Today, the mushrooms are thriving, particularly in the experiment block containing a large addition of grain, and in hindsight, Gautier is perfectly content not to be using any of the Cosco Busan fuel anyway. It has been greatly diluted with seawater and is almost certainly not as potent as the fresh product, she says, and if the mushrooms could eat it, big deal; for the fungus to devour pure motor oil would actually be a weightier testament to the possibilities of mycoremediation. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 360 million gallons of motor oil drain into the sea every year. By contrast, large ship accidents spill just 37 million gallons of bunker fuel annually. And according to the Smithsonian Institution, annual road runoff from a city of 5 million people equals approximately the amount of petroleum involved in some large oil spills, a stat that makes one wonder about a solution as simple as planting beds of oyster mushrooms along the shoulder of every highway in America to catch the toxic runoff.
Indeed, a prosperous future appears to be developing in the realm of hair mats and mycoremediation. Ken Litchfield, who owns and manages an organic farm in the East Bay hills, has high hopes for a world bettered by mushrooms. We are at the beginning of the biological century, he says. The world in the year 2100 will be as different from today as 2000 was from 1900. It was technology that drove the change in the last 100 years, but in this century, Litchfield says, biotechnology, much of it in the form of myco-technology, will change the face of civilization. “We will not be living in the same world—assuming we make it through—that we’re living in now, biologically speaking.” He tells of innovative carpenters who have experimented with fungal architecture. These builders grow mycelium in broad flat beds, then kill the organism and dry it so that a thick “board” remains, serving as organic, fungal wall insulation. Even better, says Litchfield, mushrooms may also be used someday to extract heavy metals that contaminate our soil. Theoretically, the mycelium would pick up the atoms and channel the heavy metals upward to the surface, into the mushroom’s fruit.
By the same methodology, Litchfield says, mushrooms could be used in mining operations. And what if we could engineer a strain of mushroom adept at gathering gold? The idea holds that the mycelium would dive through the rock to the mother lode and send it upward to the surface and into the eager fingers of prospectors, no dynamite or mercury needed. But is it science fiction or destiny? Without question, mycelium is running wild just under our feet, and many believe that, if only harnessed and controlled, fungi could help remedy the earth’s many problems of environmental contamination. In the Presidio, the alchemy of mushroom biology is at work, and the state-run Department of Toxic Substances Control is watching closely, tentatively interested in adopting mycoremediation technology into standard practice.
A global movement seems already to be underway. The Dec. 7 spill in the Yellow Sea, which discharged a reported 2.7 million gallons of oil just off the coast of South Korea and devastated the local fishing and aquaculture industries, is now being remedied by crews armed with Bay Area hair mats. Cleanup crews addressing the Nov. 12 oil spill in the Black Sea, which poured a thousand tons of bunker fuel into the water, have also secured hair mats from Matter of Trust and Smart Grow to better mop up the sludge. And in Ecuador, where a 2001 pipeline break on the Toachi River dumped 10,000 barrels of crude oil and left a messy legacy festering on the banks, American volunteers have revived the long-dormant cleanup effort with hair mats in hand and a fresh sense of hope. There are even stubborn remnants of the memorable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, reported at 11 million gallons, in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that still need attention. “There’s a ton of it coming out of the ground,” says Riki Ott, a journalist and author with a Ph.D. in oil pollution. “It got buried subsurface and has been preserved.”
According to Ott, who has researched the biological and cultural effects of the Valdez spill extensively, only 5 percent of the spill was removed from the water. Ott also accuses Exxon of lying about the volume of the disaster, underestimating in order to lessen the intensity of the legal consequences. She believes 30 million gallons of oil may actually have entered the water, leaving a legacy guaranteed to linger for decades. Among the most dangerous compounds in petroleum are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and near Valdez, says Ott, those atoms are still “bio-available,” meaning that they may be ingested by organisms and dispersed into the food chain, eventually entering humans. She says that thousands of illnesses and maladies among locals in the Prince William Sound area can be attributed to PAHs, which may cause asthma, immune system failure, respiratory problems, reproductive disorders, vertigo, nausea and cancer.
But oyster mushrooms relish the dangerous molecules, and Ott hopes to channel some of Exxon’s settlement dollars from the spill—much of it yet to be paid—into hair mats and mycoremediation-development programs. Ott is also coordinating with environmentalists on the devastated West Coast of South Korea, but not without her simmering grievances against oil companies. “I’m so disappointed that the oil industry continues to operate without a viable plan to clean up their messes, whether it’s in a tiny seaport in Alaska or in a big place like San Francisco or South Korea,” she says. “It’s inexcusable, and it shows a total lack of disrespect for everyone else on the planet.”
Ott expects the oil industry to try and block such progress in systemic change. The standard polypropylene oil pads are, in fact, a profitable business product for those invested in petroleum; countless pads are produced annually to aid in cleaning up some 2,500 annual oil spills. “These people are profiting from their own messes, and they have closed eyes and ears to any suggestion of [cleaning up the oil] in some new way.” According to hair-mat inventor McCrory, synthetic mats hardly even work when compared to his seven-ounce, 10-inch-wide organic products, which are reputed to be able to soak up a quart of oil in less than two minutes. Squeezed and rung out like a wet towel, McCrory says that each mat can be used as many as 100 times, adding that the synthetic pads soak up a blend of approximately half oil, half water. Even less effective, he says, are “skimmers,” vessels that enter oil slicks and vacuum the pollutant off the surface at a 9-to-1 ratio of water to oil, fluid far too diluted with water to be recuperated, which usually gets discarded or burned.
Amidst so much oil and interest in hair mats, is there enough human hair in the world to support this new technology? Almost certainly. In the United States alone, some 320,000 hair salons produce an average of a pound of hair every day, most of which currently goes to landfill. McCrory’s hair mats are all produced at six locations in China and India, which also have ample hair resources, but Oakland’s East Bay Depot of Creative Reuse, an arts and crafts recycling nonprofit, is arranging—with the help of the tireless Gautier, of course—to purchase the required needle-punch machine, arrange a compact with Bay Area barbers and establish the first domestic hair-mat factory.
Change is in the air, and the vision shared by Stamets, McCrory, Ott, Gautier and so many other activists and mushroom fanatics seems to be materializing. The biotechnology of human hair and mushrooms is gaining support and could eventually replace antiquated, dirty methods of toxic-spill management. “The oil-cleanup business is a hard revenue stream to break into, but there’s been such a positive response,” Gautier says. “I think this is really the kind of thing that the world can grab on to. We’re all familiar with hair, oil and fungus, and this is a cheap and effective and organic system. We’re proving that it works, and I think the San Francisco Bay Area, with all that’s going on now after the spill, is going to revolutionize oil-spill cleanup.”
MEANWHILE : NEWTOWN CREEK
For nearly 30 years, New York State agencies have known about a 17 million gallon oil spill under the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Now they’re finally starting to do something about it.
by Julie Leibach / January 24, 2007
The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center slumbers on the southwest bank of Newtown Creek, a brick behemoth in a dusty concrete bed. The sun casts long shadows behind the building, where weeds clump around the weathered skeleton of a wooden boat. Along the creek’s edge, two quiet figures navigate the cracked cement ledge, surveying the murky water below where several yards of fishing line cut through the surface. Any minute now…. and then it happens: an almost imperceptible tug on the line triggers a choreographed dance as the two figures painstakingly draw their prize—a blue crab—from the depths below.
Manuel Bodón has been crabbing along the banks of Newtown Creek for ten years; his friend, Edwin Rosa, for five. On this brisk October afternoon, they’ve already caught nearly a dozen. In a few hours, most will meet a boiled demise, when Bodón makes a seafood stew. “I put all kinds of seasoning in there,” he says. “It’s nice and tasty.” Never mind that his dinner was just taken from a waterway that once coursed with petroleum. While the surface appears cleaner than it’s been in the past, a mile up from Bodón and Rosa, oil continues to seep into the creek, though far less than just a few years ago. But it’s still a glaring sign of a much bigger problem.
For over 50 years, the Greenpoint section of northern Brooklyn has been sitting atop a staggering 17 million gallons of spilled oil—almost 50 percent more oil than was spilled in the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez supertanker in Alaska—and almost nothing has been done to clean it up. But now, the oily tide seems to be turning. Over the last few years, the spill—which likely originated from several tanks that leaked over the course of nearly a century—has been drawing closer scrutiny, particularly from environmental watch dog groups, law firms, and concerned citizens who all want the cleanup to begin in earnest. And just this past summer, the state Attorney General’s office agreed to investigate the spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a thorough study of the site as well.
While uncertainties and mistrust remain, state agencies that once seemed only passively concerned—and sometimes, even protective of the oil companies responsible—are now striving for a more comprehensive clean-up of the oil that has been plaguing not just the creek, but also a middle class neighborhood whose best interests haven’t always seemed to be a priority. “This is really a ‘tale of two cities.’ One is the community of Greenpoint…[the other is] the story of Newtown Creek, which is a story marked by the largest environmental disaster in the history of New York City, followed by a generation of cover up by the companies that did it, followed by nearly a generation of delay in taking responsibility for what needs to be done,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner, during an October press conference announcing the EPA study. “We’re finally at a point where we can take some action.”
A walk through Greenpoint reveals a town with a split personality. Blocks of row houses interlace commercial streets dotted with Dunkin’ Donuts, T-Mobiles, and ubiquitous Polish bakeries and pharmacies. And glaring at it all is the sooty face of industry: warehouses, factories, and the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant rising like an alien spaceship, its giant silver “digester eggs”—which break down sludge—shining in the sun. Greenpoint has been an industrial center for over 140 years. Petroleum refining began in about 1866, and by 1892 most of those refineries—there were more than 50 on the banks of Newtown Creek—had been consolidated into John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. After the break-up of the trust in 1911, some of the refineries fell under the ownership of the Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil Oil Corporation) and became known as the Brooklyn Refinery.
In 1966, the Brooklyn Refinery shut down and was demolished. Mobil Oil sold some of its lots to companies like Amoco (now British Petroleum, which currently owns a bulk fuel storage unit on a ten-acre plot) and used the remaining lots for petroleum bulk storage until 1993, when they closed. Most of the tanks and buildings of the former Brooklyn Terminal have since been torn down. The Paragon Oil Company—a subsidiary of Texaco (now Chevron Corporation)—also owned property along the creek and operated a storage facility for a decade until 1968, when Peerless Importers, a liquor distributor, purchased the land to build a warehouse. Those early refineries were careless in their operations, and it’s likely that they started spilling almost as soon as they began operating. Unhampered by environmental laws, few refineries had containment systems to catch spills, so what was released could seep into whatever was around to soak it up. “It was a very messy industry,” says Basil Seggos, chief investigator of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog organization.
The biggest spill of all wasn’t revealed until 12 years after the Brooklyn Refinery shut down. During a helicopter patrol over Newtown Creek in early September of 1978, the Coast Guard noticed an oil slick on the surface of the water near Meeker Avenue, by the Peerless Importers site. An investigation by Coast Guard-hired contractors Geraghty & Miller, Inc. found that the seep was part of a much larger spill—17 million gallons of oil that had saturated the soil underneath nearly 55 acres in Greenpoint. The Coast Guard stopped the seep by installing recovery sumps—or basins—to collect the oil, but until 1989, little was done to address what lay beneath the surface. That was the year Exxon Mobil accepted responsibility for the oil under the ground.
In 1990, the company agreed to begin cleaning up the spill, which existed not only under its own former property, but also under Peerless Importers’ land and an adjacent residential area as well. But those agreements, which were supervised by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, were fairly simple and “just really [required] them to take free product out of the ground,” says Bob Hernan, an environmental lawyer with the state Attorney General’s office who is studying the spill. Nor were the agreements strictly enforced—at least, so it seemed to Greenport residents. In fact, there were times during community meetings when oil representatives wouldn’t even let the state agency representatives talk, according to Christine Holowacz, a member of the Greenpoint Waterpark Association for Parks and Planning. “It was a terrible blow for the community to come into a meeting where you thought you had the agencies that were supposed to protect [you],” says Holowacz.
But over the past few years, high-profile lawsuits and public outcry have spotlighted the spill, and the agencies seem to be doing a turnaround. They’re considering new technologies such as vacuum enhanced recovery—which sucks up oil that’s hard to reach—and they’re also beginning to address an issue that community members charge the state has long ignored: the relationship between the plume and residents’ health. A sickly yellowish light tints the walls of St. Stanislaus Kostka Auditorium on Newell Street, Brooklyn. Several attractive young women instruct incomers to sign their names on a legal pad. Eventually, the room fills with people of all ages, dragging on this Monday evening but still curious, having received a pink flyer printed in Polish on one side and English on the other. The flyer’s headline: Your property may be contaminated and your health threatened due to a massive oil spill in Greenpoint.
Marion Tomczak sits quietly, her bright blue eyes scanning the room. A Greenpoint resident all her life, Tomczak, 77, used to live a block away from one of the tank farms. “Some people [in the community] have asthma. I don’t know if it’s from the oil spill or not,” she says. “I want to see what’s wrong with this whole thing.” As the crowd settles in, three men make their way onto the stage. One of them, suit-clad, steps forward to address the crowd. “For more than 50 years, dangerous petroleum products, byproducts, [and] solvents have been leaking underneath your homes, your properties, and into the Newtown Creek,” he booms, adding that the problem “has been left unabated for all of that time without Exxon Mobil and the other responsible parties taking the blame.”
After the presentation, a middle-aged woman, shrouded in a head scarf, approaches the speaker. Her eyes are heavy with despair. A Polish translator explains that the woman suffers from lung cancer. She never smoked. “[The oil] could be a reason,” says the man in the suit. “I promise to investigate it.” He is Marc Bern, an attorney from Napoli, Bern, and Ripka, and he’s recruiting Greenpoint residents to join a suit against Exxon Mobil. It’s one of two large lawsuits—in 2005, Giardi and Keese, a California-based environmental firm, also filed a suit against Exxon Mobil, as well as British Petroleum and Chevron (the firm dismissed Chevron from the suit in 2006)—alleging that the oil poses a direct danger both to the lives of citizens and the value of their homes.
Anecdotes of people suffering from asthma and other diseases have been circulating in Greenpoint for years. A news report in the New York Post in mid-October mentioned several cases of a rare bone sarcoma turning up on the same block in Brooklyn, although the area may not be directly located on the plume. (The New York State Department of Health would not return repeated phone messages to confirm the cancer claims.) One worry about living on the plume is that vapors associated with it might be wending their way into people’s homes. The talk in the community is that “you can get deadly sick from the fumes,” says Francis Flynn, 56, a life-time resident of Hausman Street, portions of which are above the plume.
So far, no study has been conducted to see if there’s a link between residents’ health problems and their homes’ proximity to the spill, although some community members are clamoring for an investigation. The state Department of Health “would like us to believe that the cancer cases are no different here than anywhere else” says Laura Hoffman, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “Of course, we find that hard to believe,” she says. Vapors rising up from underground oil spills can enter a home through cracks in basements, crawl spaces, or concrete slabs—and anyone inside can be exposed to them just by breathing the indoor air. Some of the compounds often found in petroleum vapors have been linked to health problems. One such compound is benzene, which is classified as a known carcinogen by the federal government. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to leukemia.
This summer, a contractor for Exxon Mobil conducted a soil vapor study in Greenpoint. It took ten samples from a residential area; of five samples that detected benzene, one was from an area above the oil plume at a level below 5.4 parts per billion. The EPA estimates that breathing just 0.4 parts per billion of benzene in air over a lifetime could cause a risk of one additional cancer case for every 100,000 people exposed. In a September draft report on the study, the Exxon contractor, Roux Associates, contended that intrusion from vapors was not likely to be a problem for people living on top of the plume. It said that vapors should naturally degrade as they pass through a basement slab. By the time they reach the inside of the house, contaminant levels should be at levels typical of regular indoor air, which for benzene can sometimes range from 1.1 to 6.6 parts per billion, according to an EPA database on indoor air values cited in the Roux report. Indeed, some household items such as nail polish have benzene in them. “Your average home has plenty of indoor air quality issues,” says Kevin Hale, a geological engineer with the state DEC. “In all probability, most of them don’t come from underground.”
So far, the state has not received any complaints about strange vapors in residents’ homes. But whether or not Roux’s conclusion is actually true remains to be seen. “We always take [Exxon’s recommendations] with a grain of salt,” says Hale. And the only way to be sure that Greenpoint citizens living on or near the plume aren’t being affected by oil-associated vapors is to take soil vapor samples from inside homes; the state is currently carrying out such a study. If it finds those vapors, the steps to control them are fairly simple. An off-the-shelf radon system—which works by intercepting vapors before they enter a house and venting them into the air outside—could do the trick. Some people, however, are wary of subjecting their homes to tests in the first place. They’re worried that if vapors are discovered, their property values might go down. Still others are reluctant to participate because they’re part of a lawsuit and are waiting until they get the green light from their lawyers. “The bottom line is, the community needs to get closure on whether or not [the vapors are] an issue,” says Hernan of the Attorney General’s office. “And the only way to get closure is if they help us.” But even if vapors turn out not to be an issue in the homes, the smell of oil is still a problem on the creek, where it emanates from oily sheens on the surface.
A boat trip along Newtown Creek is a voyeuristic tour of the guts of Greenpoint. The waterway, which meanders through a motley assortment of industrial buildings aligning its banks, is not the healthiest. It’s a dark camouflage green, teeming with intestinal bacteria from the discharge of combined sewers, not to mention chemicals such as dioxin, from a now-demolished incinerator plant. Newtown Creek was once one of the busiest industrial waterways in North America—and is now one of the dirtiest, according to Riverkeeper’s Seggos. If one were to pull up a glob of sediment from the ground, it would look like “black mayonnaise,” he says. And “the further you go up the creek, the dirtier it gets.”
He’s right. Upon reaching Peerless Importers, the old Paragon Oil site, the unmistakably pungent odor of oil taints the air. Here, behind a bulkhead, is one of the sources of petroleum seepage into Newtown Creek, although there is some debate among the oil companies regarding whether or not its source is the giant plume or a secondary, smaller one. While the leaks had begun decades earlier, large amounts of oil didn’t begin seeping into the creek until the 1970s, when the neighborhood started using upstate water instead of local water pumped from underground. The groundwater table rose when local pumping ended, and “all of a sudden, this stuff [was] getting squished out in the creek,” says Hale.
The seepage is causing several interrelated problems. In addition to the vapors potentially reaching people near the water, some of the petroleum in the creek is dissolved in groundwater, which is also leaking out from the aquifer. Some of those dissolved chemicals such as benzene can seep into fish or crabs and effectually anesthetize them, according to Keith Cooper, a professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University. Unable to move their gills in order to breathe, those creatures ultimately die. Fortunately for people who catch their dinner from the creek, meat tainted with oil has a distinctive smell and taste, which can be a warning sign.
While the original seep at the foot of Meeker Avenue was stopped, another one appeared around 1991—this time coming from the bulkhead in front of Peerless Importers. Exxon Mobil began recovering oil there in 1993, but when investigations showed that some of the recovered petroleum was more characteristic of oil used by Paragon Oil, Chevron took over by entering into a consent order with the state DEC to identify the source of the seep and put a stop to its oozing. Chevron has since deployed a system of booms and also completed a grout wall in late November, and the company has also installed a recovery system intended to extract oil from behind the bulkhead near the seep.
But no matter how many grout walls or boom systems are installed, stopping the seeps isn’t a cure-all—the leaks won’t cease until they’re traced to the source. For that to happen, though, there first needs to be a comprehensive removal of what’s inside the aquifer—not just of oil floating freely on the water table, but of the oil stuck to the sandy soil and gravel. “They gotta sincerely think about cleaning it up, because I’m sure there are a lot of people who have the same feelings I do: ‘I’m not going nowhere’” says Bob McErlean, who lives on Hausman Street and who is president of the Neighborhood Block Association. “I’m gonna be your worst nightmare.”
It’s a muggy evening as dusk settles in around the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. The Mets are home tonight, and there’s a community meeting about the Kosciuszko Bridge, so no one is sure how many people will attend this month’s gathering of the Newtown Creek Alliance. But gradually, the seats around the oval table in the conference room fill with attendees who are interested in what’s happening to clean up their neighborhood. Katie Schmid, a 27-year-old New York University law student, sits on one side of the table next to Riverkeeper’s Seggos. “This is pretty phenomenal progress for a year’s time for a volunteer organization,” says Schmid, referring to the various lawsuits, the EPA study, and the participation of the state Attorney General’s office. “Everyone should be pretty proud of themselves because this didn’t happen for 30 years.”
In 2004, Riverkeeper filed a federal lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for violating the Clean Water Act and the Natural Resource Conservation Act. The Newtown Creek Alliance helped to give the lawsuit the legal standing it needed in order to proceed because the group consisted of local residents, Schmid said. And the lawsuit helped get the attention of the state agencies, like the DEC. Since they started cleaning up the spills—before the lawsuits—the various oil companies have recovered slightly more than nine million gallons of oil. Pumping out as much floating oil as possible is the overarching goal right now, and the state DEC is now looking at new options for future remediation. One is vacuum enhanced recovery. A project on the Peerless Importers site has tested this type of technology, whereby oil that’s harder to get to is sucked up with a type of vacuum. And Exxon Mobile has plans for another pilot project testing a similar system, according to Hale of the state DEC.
Up to now, though, the clean-up effort has centered on a more conventional approach. The main technology involves a dual-pump recovery system, which operates by creating a cone-shaped well in the ground water which draws the oil down and pumps it out. The water is also treated for dissolved contamination and, once cleaned, released back into Newtown Creek. Pumping out floating oil—or free product, as it’s also known—takes a while, but it’s a necessary step in the path toward remediation, says Hale. Only after much of the free product is removed can workers begin to address oil that has stuck to the sandy aquifer. “It’s like an infected wound,” he says. “You gotta take out the nasty stuff first and then the body will heal.”
The pumping approach—which could take up to 20 years, and —doesn’t satisfy everyone, however. “It’s fatally flawed,” says Walter Hang, President of Toxics Targeting, a company that compiles information on toxic sites. “The longer you wait to alleviate and eliminate [the] hazard, the longer it has to migrate.” But now that the Attorney General’s office is on board, there’s extra pressure to find ways of enhancing recovery. Having agreed to investigate Exxon Mobil’s remediation efforts to try to design a more thorough consent order, the Attorney General’s office will be working “hand-in-hand” with the state DEC, according to Hale. “We’ve got a very good relationship,” he says. “That was our goal…to get some of the politics aside” and handle things more scientifically, he says.
Indeed, the Attorney General’s team plans to address all aspects of the plume, from vapor intrusion in people’s homes to the extent of dissolved contamination to seepage into the creek. In addition, the EPA has begun to review past remediation efforts to make recommendations for the future. “We’re trying to restore the environment to the community out there and get closure on these risks to them,” says Hernan. “They’ve been through a lot over the last 20 years out there, and they shouldn’t have to suffer this stuff anymore.”
Next door to where Manuel Bodón crabs for his supper is an old factory building where Bill Shuck, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, owns a loft. Shuck takes advantage of the water’s proximity to his door; he owns a rowboat and a kayak and has been boating on the waterway for about as long as Bodón has been crabbing there. A participant in Riverkeeper’s lawsuit, Schuck has noticed an increase in awareness regarding the spill and attributes much of it to the environmental watchdog group’s involvement in galvanizing the community. “People are more interested in the creek, and they’re interested in the pollution,” he says. And while he recognizes that clean-up may take a while, he’s hopeful that there will be a time when Greenpoint residents won’t have to worry that they’re living on top of a health hazard. “I think we have a system that can do good things,” he says. “But sometimes it does take a lot of people making a really big stink.” One that might, eventually, overtake that of the oil.