When Chris Young was busy developing human gene therapies more than a decade ago, he never imagined the research he and his colleagues were conducting would actually lead to a method for cleaning up contaminants in soil.
Young’s research looked at the effects different chemicals such as PCBs, dioxins and old pesticides like DDT and toxaphene had on the human body. Chemicals like these have proven to be carcinogens or to cause disruptions to the human endocrine system.
Young and Dr. Valerie Paynter studied bacteria they collected from hazardous waste sites as part of their research. The effects the chemicals had on the bacteria’s DNA would be similar to the effects they would have on human DNA. They discovered that the toxic chemicals impaired a specific gene within the bacteria. That particular gene produced an enzyme that was necessary for breaking down the toxic chemical.
Paynter determined that by reversing the genetic impairment, the bacteria could actually break down and eliminate the chemicals. That discovery led to field studies and eventually the formation of BioTech Restorations, a company that uses indigenous bacteria to clean up contaminated soil. More than 10 years and two dozen jobs later, the Denver, N.C.-based company has positioned itself as a cost-effective way to eliminate toxins in soil permanently.
California agency Recognizes Biotech resources
In 2005, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) announced the certification of a hazardous substances cleanup at the 14-acre Borello Property in Morgan Hill, Calif., which used BioTech Restorations to remove contaminates from the soil.
“The natural bioremediation process is considered a safe, low impact and effective method of removing pollutants from the environment,” according to a press release issued by the DTSC.
The Borello Property housed an apricot orchard from the early 1900s through the mid 1990s, which was replaced with a cherry orchard that operated until early September 2004. Environmental investigations at the site found elevated concentrations of the pesticides toxaphene and dieldrin within the initial 1.5 feet of soil at the Borello Property.
Cleanup activities at the site from June 2005 to August 2005 included BioTech Restorations’ bioremediation process that helped breakdown harmful chemicals in the pesticides into nontoxic substances (salt, carbon dioxide and water). The entire site was bioremediated at a depth of 1.5 feet, according to the DTSC.
The site received an “unrestricted use” certification, which the DTSC says is its “most rigorous and health-protective standard.”
With an estimated 750,000 to 1 million brownfield sites existing in the United States, Young hopes BioTech Restorations can be the solution to many business owners’ problems and help to make these sites a more attractive investment opportunity for developers.
Young says with the portion of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) going into effect in the next couple of years requiring companies to report their non-performing assets, many chemical companies will be looking at the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites or divesting them.
“We have been getting an awful lot of traction from folks in the industry looking to acquire these sites and either rebuild on them or redevelop these sites,” says Young. “A lot of these industrial/commercial sites have buildings on them that are still fairly functional. In many cases, the property around those plants has some environmental issues”
Other methods for handling soil contamination include digging up the soil and hauling it to a hazardous material landfill or burning it, “but those two processes have become environmentally contentious themselves,” Young says.
He references South Carolina’s Pinewood Landfill which closed more than a decade ago and accepted hazardous waste. According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, “All landfill cells have since been closed and capped. The site will remain in post-closure care for at least 100 years.”
“We got into this business with the thought that it makes a lot more sense to clean these sites up using technologies that allow for onsite cleanup as opposed to trucking these hazardous materials off to someplace else that costs more and where liability continues,” Young says. “It is just a happy coincidence that we were able to develop this biotechnology that allows us to do that and do it for a fraction of the environmental cleanup cost.”
“A lot of companies would love to divest those properties, but there aren’t too many people willing to take them on,” Young says of brownfield sites. “We think now, being able to reduce the cost of clean-up, a lot of these properties will become a more attractive investment opportunity.”
As an example of the cost savings, BioTech Restorations recently bid a 375-acre job at Camp Pendleton in California. “The cost to remove the soil and haul it away was projected at $150 million, and we bid it at $50 million,” he says.
The Other Side
In what is more than a coincidence, Young used to work for Dow Chemical Co. developing the pesticides he now destroys. “At one point in my career, I was building these pesticides. Now I am on the other side of the fence and I have the privilege of cleaning sites up that are impacted by them.”
BioTech Restorations’ first client was Hercules Chemical, which according to Young was a manufacturer of the pesticide toxaphene. It was used in the cotton industry to kill the boll weevil, a species of beetle that infests the cotton crop. According to Young, toxaphene has a half-life of 20 years and can last “forever” when buried in the soil.
“We were able to eliminate the toxaphene from the soil in a space of about 20 weeks,” Young recalls. After doing more field research on PCBs and dioxins, he says, “We discovered we can now degrade just about any organic chemical pollutant out there.”
After spending several years working with state and regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “make them comfortable with what we do,” Young says BioTech Restorations was ready to take on its first commercial job.
In 2005, the company successfully removed PCBs from a 5-acre site in San Francisco. The site was repurposed by the California EPA for residential development, which Young says is the “highest level of cleanup you can achieve.”
The reason Young says, BioTech Restorations took on its first job in California was because he knew it would be the most difficult state to do business in. “In our industry, it is somewhat of an axiom that if you can work in California, then you can work anywhere because the regulatory environment is so strict. We purposefully went there to work with the California EPA with the idea we could then use our success there as a kind of launching pad for other projects around the country.”
BioTech Restoration has also completed jobs in South Carolina and in Florida and has projects in the works in Wisconsin and New York. Young says the company is currently “being vetted for its largest project ever.” The company’s biotechnology is being considered as a remedy for a potential cleanup of a 10-mile stretch of the Housatonic River in Massachusetts that “will generate more than 1 million cubic yards of PCBs,” Young says.
BioTech Restorations also is working with the Army Corp. of Engineers, the Navy and several private clients, according to Young, and hopes to continue growing its client base and size.
“We are just a small company right now, but we are planning to grow considerably this year and next. We expect to double our size in the next three years,” Young says.
The author is associate editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at email@example.com.This article first appeared the January/February issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling, a sister publication of Recycling Today.