Bioremediation is the science and art of working with living systems to detoxify and regenerate contaminated environments.Through the use of plants (phytoremediation), bacteria (microbial remediation), and fungi (mycoremediation), heavy metals and chemicals can either be bound, extracted, or transformed. There is much that can be learned by working with the many micro-organisms, mushrooms, and plants that are the planets finest and oldest disaster responders, alchemists, and healers.
There is no one size that fits all or silver bullet in bioremediation – the work takes time, humility, and patience. The field is young, and much needs to be done to scale up the solutions in order to address the true extent and severity of the ecological crises we are facing. Everything from healing the contaminated soils in our cities so we can grow safe and healthy food, to assisting with the recovery from ever more frequent natural and environmental disasters. It takes courageous, resourceful, dynamic and creative earth healers and practioners to do this challenging work. Here are a few of the amazing women who are active in expanding the field and practice of bioremediation at the community level.
Lexie Gropper – Amisacho, Ecuador
Lexie Gropper is the Program Director of Amisacho, an organization that supports local communities in the Northern Amazon of Ecuador through the testing and creation of bioremediation installations to mitigate oil spill contamination, as well as providing edible and medicinal mushroom cultivation and training.
For decades, the Sucumbíos region of Ecuador has been impacted with extensive oil contamination due to the dumping and spilling of over 18.5 gallons of oil by Chevron-Texaco and other oil companies. This toxic legacy contaminates the soils and waters of the area, causing elevated risk to cancer, birth defects & miscarriages among the indigenous peoples & small farmers of the area.
Through the development of a jungle cultivation laboratory in Amisacho, Lexie has been working to develop mycoremediation protocols applicable to the local ecology. She is working to clone the petrophillic fungi present in the +50 year old oil sludge pits, figure out if they can degrade hydrocarbons, and determine how to best expand and apply them to remediate the contaminated soil.
Amisacho’s primary partner in the region is the Unión de los Afectados por el Texaco/Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (UDAPT). Together, they are working to research and implement regenerative, ecologically-sound solutions to address the extensive damage from petroleum contamination of their traditional lands and waters. Amisacho has several remediation projects in the works. One is a large bioremediation pilot project that will use windrow composting and inoculations with either native bacteria, native fungi, or a special petrophillic blend of bacteria to break down contaminated oil sludge. Gropper is also working with a network of local permaculturalists to explore different preventative phytoremediation and mycoremediation installations to intercept contaminated runoff from the oil pits from moving on to their land. Amisacho is also preparing to offer hands-on bioremediation trainings for the community, to embed the skills locally.
“We offer courses on mushroom production for food, medicine and soil regeneration, as well as organic compost and biochar. We also make mycomedicinals which is important in a region that has one of the highest rates of cancer in South America. We are remediating the soil while finding healing livelihoods. We need to integrate human health, ecological health, culture revitalization, and economic justice. That is permaculture – it all has to come together”, states Gropper.
Nance Klehm, Social Ecologies, Chicago
Nance Klehm has been an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permacultural grower for more than two decades. Working primarily with microbial and phytoremediation on urban sites, Klehm takes the art of composting, inoculating sites with beneficial bacteria and fungi, and regenerating soil to another level.
Her most recent project, Public Margins, is situated on 2 different contaminated sites, one in Chicago and the other in Wilmington, North Carolina. The project explores the functions of spontaneous vegetation on these disturbed sites, with the idea that you cannot solve the problem without understanding the dynamics already at play. Klehm startedcollecting and testing soils for qualitative character and areas of hot spots of contamination, as well as chemically testing the tissues of the associated plant species in 2018. She also conducted numerous surveys of the different species on both sites, observingtheir abilities to adapt and handle the contamination present. All of this valuable data will inform the bioremediation interventions that will take place in 2020. “Having a complex understanding of site over many years, before we do any intervention, is very important. I am not interested in jumping in with our hero capes, I am interested in understanding the pathways to health and how we enhance them on these sites”, she emphasized.
Nance Klehm is also the author of The Ground Rules: A Manual to Reconnect Soil and Soul. The manual is a guide to community composting and DIY soil remediation.She is currently working on two more publications. The first, Dirt Work: Recreating Coherence in Urban Soil (2019), dives deeper in microbial remediation. Another publication coming out in 2020 will focus on phytoremediation. The manual and upcoming publications can be found on Klehm’s website: www.socialecologies.net
Jess Rubin, (Yepeth Perla) MycoEvolve & Vermont Myconode
Jess Rubin is the founder of MycoEvolve, an ecological resilience service which provides education, earthworks, and research oriented towards habitat rejuvenation, corridor enhancement, and watershed restoration. She also co-founded Vermont Myconode, a bioregional collective dedicated to growing mycoliteracy, earth repair skills, and collaborative community.
Rubin is concerned about the effects of industrial and commercial activities on the health of Lake Champlain. She began her focus on E. coli contamination in runoff from commercial dairy farms lacking adequate buffers and manure management. When she learned about the ability of King Stropharia mycelium to denature E. coli bacteria, she was inspired to delve deeper with mycofiltration. MycoEvolve, in collaboration with UVM, began a pilot project to filter dairy farm effluent through mycelial mats.
Several questions arose: Which fungal species are most efficacious to mycofiltrate certain contaminants considering hyphal anatomy, site conditions, and runoff contents? At what point do the filters stop working? What happens during flooding or drought? What happens during seasonal freeze and thaw cycles? Is direct contact with the mycofilter necessary or is enzyme exudate contact enough to prevent target pathogens from entering the watershed? Can mycofilters be applied in current stormwater design systems? Seeking more scientific data to inform their remediation efforts, Rubin’s team conducted lab and greenhouse experiments channeling dairy farm effluent through mycofilters.
The experiment results demonstrated a significant decrease in E.coli. However, data also revealed the potential for the mycofilters to be an incubator for nutrients and other bacteria. “We don’t want to create microbial nurseries and increase nutrient loads into aquatic ecosystems already struggling,” said Rubin.
According to Rubin, complex problems require careful observation of nature. Rubin observed a series of natural wetlands, swamps, and riparian buffers providing effective filters, delivering clean water from contaminated uplands to the lake. “Consciously installing polyculture systems all the way down the watershed can redirect nutrients into terrestrial cycles, denature pathogens into substrate, and disassemble toxins. There is potential in successional fungal hugelkultures of saprophytic species like King Stropharia, Shitake, and Reishi bordered by riparian buffers of mycorrhizal dipped, phytoremediating plants, trees, & shrubs to create diverse, pollinator, medicinal, and edible habitat while protecting watershed health,” explained Rubin. She plans to partner with a local dairy farm in mycofiltration field trials in the near future.
Kaitlin Bryson – Bioremediation Artist, New Mexico.
Katilin Bryson is a bioremediation artist, mycologist, and organic farmer. In 2017-2018, Bryson partnered with the Indigenous women led organization, Tewa Women United to start a mycoremediation project to support the organization’s campaigns to address different environmental justice issues stemming from the toxic contamination of their lands and communities in New Mexico.
Three contaminatedsites were chosen for the mycoremediation installations. Two of the sites were in the community of Espanola, and the final one was centered on exploring innovative bioremediation solutions to address the toxic legacy left behind by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of the Manhattan Project where the atomic bomb was built. By 2018, Bryson was collaborating with the community to design and set up creative mycoremediation and mycofiltration installations, as well as teach local mycoremediation workshops.
According to Beata Tsosie-Peña, the Environmental Justice Program Director for Tewa Women United: “The impact of the project has been one of healing and restoration for the peoples’ relationship to land, water, our plant relatives and other ecological beings and systems. This is aligned with our programs’ values of honoring Tewa ancestral knowledge. Our oldest relatives, the fungi, are revealing how they can help answer our prayers for the cleanup of contaminated sacred sites. It has been good to be able to offer the community pro-active solutions and teachings on Indigenous principles of land stewardship, and methods that anyone can implement in their own backyards and gardens if they are worried about pollution. It is an example of how Indigenous science can balance with western”.
Olga Tzogas: SmugTown Mushrooms & New Moon Mycology Summit, New York
Olga Tzogas is a mushroom cultivator and community organizer based in Rochester, New York. Passionate about the potential fungi have to help heal both people and planet, Tzogas started Smugtown Mushrooms in 2011, cultivating mushrooms, offering spawn and growing kits, and teaching a variety of mycology workshops. She was a core organizer for the 2016 Radical Mycology Convergence and the MycoSymbiotics Festival from 2015-2017. Tzogas is currently part of the Mycellium Underground Collective, and was a co-organizer of the 2018 New Moon Mycology Summit.
The New Moon Mycology Summit was a week of learning, networking and hands-on projects focused on the intersections of regenerative design, bioremediation and environmental justice. “The event sought to go beyond the traditional conversations in mycology, linking up with social and environmental justice struggles, and bringing together people on the frontlines of land defence, remediation, food justice, and much more”, emphasized Tzogas. It also showcased the diverse talents of many women mycologists, cultivators, and remediators, a refreshing change in a field too often dominated by the voices of white men.
The Summit included a 4 day Advanced Mycorenewal pre-course led by the members of CoRenewal. With a teaching team comprised predominantly of women mycologists, and bioremediators such as Maya Elson, Mia Rose Maltz, Lexie Gropper, Jess Ann Rubin, and Danielle Stevenson, the pre-course was an immersion into mycoremediation, training participants in the skills needed to move projects from theory to regenerative reality. There are plans in the works for a 2019 New Moon Mycology Summit in August. For more information: https://www.newmoonmycologysummit.org.
The best bioremediation work is rooted in social and environmental justice, honoring the complexity of the toxic legacies we have inherited. It seeks to build powerful and diverse relationships that amplify ecological resilience while connecting, empowering, and strengthening our communities. This important work calls for us to show up willing to listen to the land and to each other. To be real with the challenges of the work, and skill up with the necessary training and knowledge to support the healing of these toxic and damaged landscapes. The contributions these incredible women are making to the growing field of bioremediation is inspiring, and there are many more like them working in their communities as organizers, educators, practioners, scientists and healers dedicated to finding innovative solutions to care for their community and the earth.Let uslift up their leadership, amplify their voices, support their projects, and celebrate the knowledge and contributions they make to the fields of bioremediation, mycology, and permaculture.
This article originally appeared in Permaculture Magazine’s 100th Issue, Summer 2019. https://www.permaculture.co.uk