Willows at work


With a 164,000-gallon petroleum plume spreading underground, there's an awful mess at Fort Drum in New York. No one knows just how it happened, but researchers are fairly certain the military training facility's problem has been around for over 50 years. Still, it wasn't until the late 1980s that folks noticed small creeks near the army base's shuttered "Old Sanitary Landfill" had turned a rusty brown. Estimates suggested constructing a treatment plant to remediate the associated environmental damage would cost a whopping $8 million, but, thanks to some thirsty willow trees, that figure's been trimmed down to one million dollars instead.

In what may well be North America's largest phytoremediation effort yet, over 23,000 of the trees have been installed to clean the place up, and they do their important work in a few ways. Bacteria and fungi which colonize the willows' root systems break down some of the contaminants, allowing the willows to use some of the resulting molecules for their own growth. Through transpiration, the trees also release greatly reduced concentrations of the contaminants into the atmosphere. Now, depending on their size, willow trees can go through three to five gallons of water daily, and, the willows growing in an initial quarter-acre test site were able to filter as much as 10,000 gallons of the contaminated water in a single day. That's 10,000 fewer gallons to contaminate area creeks. As budgets tighten and our collective sensitivity to environmental impacts grows, I think phytoremediation projects like this one will become the standard.

On a related note, while you probably don't need massive environmental remediation in your own backyard, you can still benefit from establishing a few trees. Strategically planted, all kinds of trees can save you big money on your home heating and cooling costs. You can pair trees with shrubbery to create a windbreak to help keep out the winter chill, or install them as a shade to cool things down in the summer. And you don't have to wait until Arbor Day to plant a tree. You can safely plant new trees as long as there are still a few weeks before your average first frost date.

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