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Purdue researchers clean up petroleum spills with plants

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., June 26, 2000 -- A husband and wife research team at Purdue University has pioneered the use of plants to help clean up soil contaminated with petroleum products. The Environmental Protection Agency and industry researchers already use methods developed by the Purdue team at several petroleum spill sites across the nation.

"We're using natural methods to clean up soil pollutants," says Katherine Banks, a Purdue professor of civil engineering. She and her agronomy professor husband, Paul Schwab, were one of the first research teams to develop methods for field-testing phytoremediation, the use of plants to clean up contaminated soil.

Banks says her expertise solving hazardous waste problems combined with Schwab's strong plant and soils background is a marriage that makes phytoremediation work. Their son complains that they always talk about work at home, "which makes us better researchers, although it makes us a little narrow in some ways," Banks says.

Banks and Schwab have used plants to help clean up a Texas oil pipeline spill, contamination at an Indiana manufactured-gas plant, an industrial sludge site in California and diesel spills on Naval bases in Virginia and California. They describe their work in "Bioremediation of Contaminated Soils," a book published last winter by the American Society of Agronomy.

"Soil microbes are actually the ones that break down the petroleum contaminants," Schwab says, "but the plants accelerate the microbes' action in the soil. They stimulate microbes to degrade contaminants by getting more oxygen into the soil and by supplying nutrients through their roots."

Other biological clean-up methods can do the job faster, but phytoremediation costs much less and leaves the soil structure intact, Schwab says.

"With standard methods you have to dig the soil out and then incinerate, compost or landfill the contaminated material," Schwab says. "Using phytoremediation, we can treat the soil
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Contact: Rebecca J. Goetz
rjg@aes.purdue.edu
765-494-0461
Purdue University
25-Jun-2000


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