Environmentalists and government officials have long dreamed of harnessing nature to clean up hazardous waste. The Department of Energy already sponsors an exhaustive research program in "bioremediation," a process that uses living organisms to reduce toxic substances (A rundown of the program is available at www.lbl.gov/NABIR/.) But the most promising recent development has come from the private sector.
Colorado entrepreneur Frank Burcik recently completed a pilot project demonstrating that vegetables and other plants could absorb metals from toxic waste runoff, using a process called phytoremediation. Burcik, president of Water Treatment and Decontamination International, set up his hydroponic underground lab in a mine drainage tunnel in Leadville, Colorado. The runoff water coursed through sets of troughs containing assorted veggies, including carrots, beets, spinach, and broccoli. Seventy percent of the metal contaminates were removed in the process.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are interested in transplanting Burcik's process as early as next year to help clean the California Gulch Superfund site. And World Bank officials say they're intrigued by the potential applications in less developed countries.