Bananas are growing in a mine drainage tunnel in Leadville, Colo. Along with carrots, spinach, beets, and broccoli, these crops may provide the solution to cleaning up one of the nation's most polluted Superfund sites.
Entrepreneur Frank Burcik, president of Water Treatment and Decontamination International, created the underground greenhouse to remove toxic heavy metals from the mine's contaminated runoff. Initially, he used wetland plants in his phytoremediation efforts, but with only modest success. Since then, he has switched to a fruit and vegetable line, but not for eating. His new approach includes harvesting the plants once they become saturated with metals, followed by reseeding.
Early results show that the plants can remove about 71 percent of the contaminants at a rate of almost 5 gallons per minute. Expanding the size of the planted area should speed up the process.
The Environmental Protection Agency is keeping a close eye on Burcik's project as it sees many applications for the process. The World Bank sees possibilities for environmental cleanups in developing nations, and domestic mining companies have expressed a keen interest as well.
Meanwhile, Burcik is going full throttle in Leadville with his eye on rescuing the economically floundering town. He envisions an organization that would not only clean up the pollution, but also attract scientists to conduct phyto-remediation research, and employ workers in a particle-board factory using the remains of harvested plants.