EarthRx: How Community Mycoremediation Projects Can Clean Up Oil Spills Around the Planet

Science Features Mycoremediation
EarthRx: How Community Mycoremediation Projects Can Clean Up Oil Spills Around the Planet

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.

IMG_2779.jpgPhoto 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.”

IMG_2158.jpgPhoto courtesy of FunGaia Farm

Solving a local environmental problem through communal effort and the simple natural technology of mycoremediation is a model that should be copied around the world. But can it really be used to address the giant oil spills in the Amazon and other places? How would we ever find the funds and energy to create such large scale mushroom remediation projects?

“Unfortunately, more and more communities are facing issues with pollution,” Durr says. “Contaminated sites and oil spills are often left for the people that live there.”

Durr adds, “In instances where oil and chemical companies have been held accountable and often fined for their environmental contamination, these funds can be used by local communities to fund remediation projects.”

Which brings us back to that $9.5-billion-dollar settlement Chevron still refuses to pay. That is more than enough skrilla to turbocharge on the ground community mycoremediation projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon, like the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, which, like Durr, has partnered with indigenous tribes and is already using mushrooms to clean up the mess left behind by corporate greed and negligence with limited funds and resources.

Although Chevron says it won’t pay “until hell freezes over,” you can help them get their ice skates ready by completely boycotting them and supporting the coalition of environmental orgs—everyone from Amazon Watch and the Rainforest Action Network to the Sierra Club and Amnesty International—that are ramping up the pressure on Chevron to take responsibility for their actions.

We can also start implementing community mycoremediation projects at the grassroots level right in our own community, which along with an evolution out of car dependence and petroleum addiction, will make the blight of oil spills a thing of the past.

“Mycoremediation is by no means a silver bullet,” Durr says. “But it can be one of many tools for people to use to begin the healing process of addressing our polluted earth. My hope is as this knowledge becomes more mainstream we will see people working together with plants, fungus and bacteria to reduce the levels of toxic sites around the world.”

The world is not just our oyster, it’s our oyster mushroom. The means to solve even our most pressing environmental problems are already there in nature and just waiting for us, like mushrooms and their mycelium, to start acting like the interconnected, interdependent community and planet we really are.

Photo by USFWSmidwest, CC-BY

Ocean Malandra writes the EarthRx column for Paste Magazine and divides his time between Northern California and South America. He also suffers from an extreme case of mycophilia.

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