Back in 2011, the giant Chevron corporation was found guilty of illegally dumping billions of gallons of oil waste into the Ecuadorian rainforest in what has been described as the Amazon’s “Chernobyl” and the worst case of oil pollution on the planet. Chevron was ordered to pay $US 9.5 billion to offset the damage they caused, which they are still dodging with an army exceeding 2,000 lawyers while a huge slice of the most bio-diverse and beautiful ecosystem on earth remains contaminated.
This is just one example of the countless giant oil spills that have ruined huge pieces of our home planet. Although they mostly happen out of sight, like deep in the Amazon, there have also been major spills right in largely population areas including the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (the largest in U.S. history) and spill after spill right on the San Francisco Bay, which has polluted the shores of my hometown—widely considered the greenest city in the nation.
The fossil fuel industry has to go, no doubt about it—in addition to the tremendous air pollution burning petroleum produces and the direct destruction caused through drilling, oil spills are just the ugly frosting on a cake that is poisonous to its core.
But after we break our oil addiction what do we do with the mess left behind? Enter nature’s most powerful toxic avenger—the mighty mushroom.
The fact that mushrooms, through a process called mycoremediation, can break down the hyrdocarbons in petroleum (and a wide range of other pollutants) and turn them back into inert matter was discovered years ago and has been widely promoted by mycologist-turned-environmental guru Paul Stamets as part of his excellent TED Talks manifesto on how mushrooms can save the world. But while now every environmental site or blog worth its Himalayan sea salt has run articles on mycoremediation, there are very few cases of it actually being employed successfully beyond the petri dish.
Photo courtesy of FunGaia Farm
Simply put, big business is not interested in a process involving natural substances that cannot be patented and monopolized. If mushrooms are really going to save the world, it’s going to take a grassroots effort.
That’s why I was happy to run into Levon Durr, who runs the mycoremediation center FunGaia Farm in Humboldt County, California. Just last year, Durr successfully used the common oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) to clean up a diesel fuel and motor oil spill behind a widely used community center on Karuk tribal land near the Klamath River, an important waterway for locals.
“Headed by the Mid Klamath Watershed Counsel (MKWC) and monitored by the local tribes, Fungaia Farm was brought in to facilitate the remediation of the soil using fungus as opposed to more conventional remediation techniques of soil removal and disposal (landfilling),” he says.
“The contaminated soil was removed from the ground and layered with fresh straw and burlap covered in oyster mushroom fungus or mycelium—the root-like vegetative part of the fungus,” Durr continues, describing how the mycelium is an underground interconnected fungal network, often compared to the human neural system or described as nature’s Internet that does the real magic.
“With the contaminated soil out of the ground and in an aerobic environment the mycelium could begin to grow into the contaminated soil and break apart the hydrocarbons (molecularly disassembling the hydrocarbons into non-toxic components).”
He received funds from local grants and was able to measure the results and publish a report on the project, showing that with some of the samples he was able to remove all traces of oil completely, while others were reduced to a non-toxic level.
“This process took over a year and half and was successful at reducing the contaminant by over 90 percent.” He says, “The soil was then able to be used for landscaping and was no longer a concern to the Klamath River or local wildlife.”
“The idea that a community could come together and address an issue like this contaminated site was empowering for all involved.” Durr explains, “I believe for everyone involved there was a sense of joy to see such a simple, (although labor intensive), biological solution that allowed us to address the problem permanently and not just “dispose” of the contaminated soil and dump it into someone else’s watershed.”