As these willows grow, pollution shrinks

Photo by Colleen White, Watertown Daily Times

At the sprawling Fort Drum military installation in New York, 23,000 willow plants are cleaning up the site of a 164,000-gallon plume of fuel that has been spreading underground for more than 50 years.

Energy for the cleanup is provided by the sun, negating the need to construct a treatment plant that would have cost up to $8 million.

The trees are part of an aggressive cleanup strategy to remediate groundwater contamination caused by fuel that leaked from the tank farm along Fort Drum’s “Gasoline Alley.” The military installation, home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division — Light Infantry, covers more than 107,000 acres. This year, the base is marking its 100th year as a military training site.

No one knows exactly when the leaks began — perhaps as early as World War II — but they were discovered in 1988, when the petroleum, which had been spreading underground for many years, began to foul small creeks on the base…

Dr. Christopher Nowak and his colleagues began with a small pilot plot, which expanded over the years to 2 acres. He has experimented with some 30 varieties of willow trees and shrubs to see which ones grow best.

As a silviculturist, Nowak’s specialty is the care and tending of tree communities. Part of the challenge in this case was finding a way for the willows to grow in the contaminated soil. He settled on planting boxes, bottomless wooden frames filled with soil that contained enough nutrients for the young plants to establish themselves before the roots reached soil that was soggy with petroleum-laced water…

He said monitoring efforts indicate that the contaminant concentrations are lower than they were before the willows were planted.

Ain’t nothing like some good news for a change. Especially on a military reservation.

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