Altavista Using Trees to Soak Up Toxins in Pond

Altavista, VA- Officials in Altavista are relying on something a little unorthodox to help clean the environment in one section of town--the environment itself. They're planting trees along the edges of a pond near their water treatment plant to clean waste deposited there years ago.

It has the potential to save them millions of dollars, and so far so good. The method is called phytoremediation and a company from Iowa called Ecolotree brought it to Altavista. For the past two years they've been surrounding the contaminated lake with trees, in hopes of cleansing the ground, instead of removing it.

"Two weeks ago these were just sticks. And now they have blooms on them, have leaves on them," said Altavista Town Manager Waverly Coggsdale.

Coggsdale is happy to see Ecolotree's cleansing system taking root in his home. The federal government mandated that the town clean up toxins in the ground surrounding this emergency overflow pond. After debate and research, local leaders decided to plant plots of trees.

"The newest one is the biggest right now, it has probably 100. We've got probably another 150 that we're going to put in," said Coggsdale.

After two years, Coggsdale says the results are positive and promising. The trees, mostly hybrid poplars and willows, are slowly soaking up the toxins known as PCBs, and breaking them down through photosynthesis.

Every so often town officials will come and pluck a couple of leaves from these trees and send if off to Iowa where scientists will run tests on what kind of chemicals these trees are absorbing.

Coggsdale says if the results keep coming back positive and PCBs continue to drop, this pond could soon be surrounded in these small, but super trees.

"We are definitely hoping for what they call an in situ remediation effort, which means in place. So we don't do any hauling. We keep it here, solve our problem here, we're done," he said.

Another option the town is considering is draining the pond and digging up the contaminated soil so it can be hauled off to a special landfill. However, Coggsdale says that could cost millions of dollars and lots of time. He's hoping the trees, which have only cost the town around $4,000 so far, will be their best solution.