Poplar Trees and Restoration of Contaminated Soils, Water

Check out this old article on Lou Licht, an Iowa-based engineer who works with planting poplar trees for soil remediation and water management. Licht’s trees eliminate the chemicals in wastewater. “Every drop of water passes within an inch of a root,” he said. Those roots and microbes – the tiny organisms around them – breakdown pollutants like pathogens, ammonia, spilled oil or pharmaceuticals.”

Here’s a clip from Iowa Watch:

He’s an entrepreneur with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. But in some ways, Licht still is like the dairy farmer he grew up as. Only now, he grows things. His crops are poplar trees that filter fine particles and formaldehyde from the air. When planted in swales, they retain and filter water from rain, reducing storm surges and runoff in flood-prone states like Iowa. And, they can treat sewage.

“In the case of Iowa, where we are surrounded by farmland, the right 15-20 acres can do all the tertiary treatment for a town of 1,000 people,” he said.

Licht, a native of Lowden, Iowa, lives in a North Liberty home surrounded by poplars. Wearing thin-rimmed glasses and black zip-up vest over a long-sleeved beige shirt one breezy October morning, he talked about his professional evolvement, the pollution-fighting trees and his hopes for what they could do for Iowa’s environmental problems.

As he spoke, the sun peaked through the thick forest of spindling trees that shield much of his lake from view. Topped with thin patches of still-green leaves, those trees dot the landscape of the few acres Licht calls home. Green-brown, expansive space, accented with the chirping of birds, it is the type of place where you might expect to find someone who studies trees.

But Licht doesn’t just study trees. He plants them – by the thousands each year in places like Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, and gets thousands of dollars to do it. He’s not an in-your-face ecologist who lambastes mankind for “the rape of Mother Earth.” He’s a businessman who speaks of incentives and convergence. To him, cleaning the environment isn’t a moral issue. “It just makes sense,” he said.

But why would the U.S. Air Force or companies like Tyco or Republic Waste, which is the second largest disposer of garbage nationally, want Licht’s trees? Why do scientists around the globe seek his advice?

Licht’s work is “awesome,” said Kenneth Yongabi, coordinator of Phytobiotechnology Research Foundation in Cameroon. “I have no doubt about the formidable treasure this technology has for the future.”

The trees work through a process called phytoremediation that involves tree roots, swales and surrounding microbes, and they save companies money, lot’s of it, he and his environmental colleagues say. They help clean polluted land, air and water.

One of his projects is in Slovenia, where land that once was oil refinery now is an 18-hole golf course still lined with some of the trees he planted years before.

In Iowa, Licht says his methods could help deal with poorly treated sewage. More than 700 un-sewered communities discharge 1.2 billion gallons of poorly treated sewage into state waters, according to two studies by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited in a 2005 Iowa Policy Project report. Upgrading those systems to new federal standards can cost millions.

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