By Cindy Kerschner
The Times News, © 2003

March 1, 2003

“Filthy water cannot be washed.”

This African proverb represents the way most of us think about polluted groundwater. But what if we could clean it? Fortunately for us, scientists across the country are working on ways to restore contaminated groundwater. And they are doing it naturally. This process is called bioremediation. The term “bioremediation” or biological cleanup refers to a process in which living organisms do the actual cleaning process. This process occurs constantly in nature.

Microbes and bacteria feed on decaying material turning it into usable food for plants. Plants in turn release nutrients into the soil, air and animals. This is part of the life cycle. Now let’s apply these principles to groundwater cleanup. There are three options available for our tainted groundwater. We can contain it so that the pollution doesn’t spread. We can remove it and treat it, or we can treat it at the site known as “in-situ”. All these methods can be accomplished through bioremediation.

In bioremediation, plants and microbes do the labor. Some plants are chosen because they can uptake large amounts of contaminants without harm to their system. Other plants have strong root systems that keep the pollutant from spreading. Some microbes (aerobic) need oxygen while others (anaerobic) don’t need oxygen. These properties allow plants and microorganisms to treat a large variety of toxins in our groundwater.

All of these techniques will be further explained in upcoming articles.

In some cases, plants and microorganisms work hand-in-hand. This friendly cooperation is known as a “symbiotic” relationship. Tiny bacteria and fungi live in the soil around the plant root system. These microbes absorb and break down nutrients so that the plant can take up what it needs to survive more easily. Plants in turn payback the microorganisms by providing oxygen and nutrients to the soil microbes.

Remember, heavy metals like nickel, iron, and zinc are crucial to plant health in the right quantities. So are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. As human beings, small amounts of these nutrients are vital to our health. But high doses of these elements in our groundwater can cause us illness.

Then there are other contaminants we face such as petroleum products and solvents. Scientists have found that certain microbial strains will happily gobble up many of these pollutants. But all these methods take time and more research.

All living things share this planet and its water supply. Doesn’t it make sense we work together? The Carbon County Groundwater Guardians is a nonprofit, volunteer organization.