After turning an unfortunate case of contaminated soil into a research project, Whitefish High School students and teachers presented their findings to the public last week.
Students in Todd Spangler’s advanced chemistry last fall began efforts to remediate contaminated soil in the greenhouse and outdoor garden beds at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship, trying out a variety of different techniques to essentially pull the herbicide contamination out of the dirt.
CSE Facilities Coordinator Taylor Wilmot noticed the contamination last June due to some strange, “funky” effects in new plants, she told a crowd of about 30 community members last week.
“When I say funky, I mean twisting leaves, curling stems, cupping leaves, just things that I’d never seen plants do before,” Wilmot said.
Wilmot reached out to the United States Department of Agriculture office in Kalispell, and testing results the following month showed the presence of aminopyralid, an herbicide made by Dow Agrosciences and found in products like Milestone Specialty Herbicide. Wilmot said the soil was purchased locally, but the provider was unaware of the contamination.
Instead of seeing the contamination as a bad omen for the center, Wilmot said they realized the potential in facing the problem head on.
“Once we tested positive for herbicide, obviously there was a lot of fear, but we weren’t going to let fear drive the car,” she said. “And we were more curious about what our options [were], so we started researching what we could do about this. This has impacted people across the state, across the country, across the world.”
The students in Spangler’s class explored a variety of methods to pull the aminopyralid out of the soil, including using cover crops to absorb the chemical, different composting products, microbes to break down the herbicide and even fungi, among others. For cover crops, the class used sunflowers, oats, peas and radishes — all of which were expected to be highly effective in drawing out the aminopyralid — and for three months tested different variables like watering levels, solar intensity and the worm counts within the soil.
Those cover crops were either burned, given to composting business Dirt Rich, LLC, or thrown away.
Students Abbie Lowry and Jessica Henson focused primarily on using Regenysis and Regenichar, products made by the Algae AquaCulture Technologies in the Flathead Valley. These products add carbon back into the soil to expedite the remediation process.
“In the end, what worked best was the Regenichar/Regenysis and compost,” Lowry told the audience. “All of these decreased the herbicide levels from about 64 percent to 78 percent, which are incredible numbers when you’re looking at decreases in herbicide.”
Looking back at the project, Lowry told the Pilot it was fun to see a seemingly impossible task become doable. For one, the class are now likely among the leaders in this case of soil remediation research, as not much had yet been done.
“I think the biggest thing we learned is that aminopyralid, you can break it down. It’s not impossible, it’s not like you have to throw away the soil. And there are natural ways to do it. This only took like three months or so and it got rid of like 78 percent of the aminopyralid. It is possible to remediate, and there are effective ways to do it,” she said.
“There isn’t a lot of research so far, but with all the problems you just have to keep pursuing it and trying to find a solution,” Henson added. “There’s a lot of things people say but there’s not a lot of definitive solutions, and it’s been really cool to be able to go out and find a solution for ourselves.”
During the presentation, Spangler noted that the students’ research isn’t totally usable in a formal sense. However, the takeaways and general impressions they got after completing their projects should definitely be useful, he said.
“This wouldn’t be publishable because we haven’t reproduced it,” he said. “We’re obviously limited — we don’t have a budget, we’re relying on donated tests and things like that. It’s really important to take that caveat as far as making interpretations of the work we’ve done. We’re not a research lab.”
However, Wilmot did offer some advice to those looking to clean up their own soil or avoid the problem in the future. Wilmot’s suggestions include avoiding bare ground and instead using mulch, adding a glucose/water solution to plants, spraying plants with a compost tea, using algae fertilizer and compost, and using cover crops to draw out herbicides like the students did.
The full community presentation is available on the high school’s website at whs.wsd44.org by clicking on Staff and selecting Todd Spangler to view his page.