Woman Working in Basement Lab Develops Acid-Eating Microbe
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ A former high school science teacher is growing microbes that could revolutionize mining by neutralizing the acid drainage that costs companies and the government millions for cleanup.
Jo Davison has convinced Peabody Coal Co., the nation’s largest producer, to let her ″bugs″ eat the poisonous runoff from a West Virginia mine.
″We’ll give it a try,″ said Jim Crawford, manager of environmental affairs at Peabody’s West Virginia headquarters here. ″If it works, great 3/8 If it doesn’t, well ...″
Acid drainage oozes its telltale red water anywhere mine operators cut into earth and stone containing pyrites. The global problem plagues miners of not only coal, but also of gold, silver and other natural resources. It starts with the breaking of the soil and lasts long after the mine has been shut down.
″Anywhere there are pyrites, there is acidic drainage,″ said West Virginia University researcher Jeff Skousen. Pyrites are metal sulfides that in the presence of air and water produce sulfuric acid.
Anywhere there is acid drainage, miners face expensive chemical treatments to remove heavy metals and neutralize the water, and the chemicals used to treat the drainage themselves often are toxic.
Coal industry officials have pegged the water treatment costs at $1 million a day in the United States. West Virginia has paid more than $1 million in three years to treat abandoned sites in just two counties.
Metals from mine drainage poison 20 percent of West Virginia’s streams, and 13 percent are too acid from the drainage or too alkaline from overzealous treatment, according to a state report last month.
Enter Davison, a gravel-voiced woman with a stubborn certainty there must be a natural solution to the man-made problem.
Her work parallels wetlands research at West Virginia University, where she was completing a master’s degree in science education in the 1950s.
After a dam holding mine runoff broke and flooded a pristine bog in German Valley, West Virginia University researcher Joe Lange discovered that water leaving the bog was crystal clear.
Mine reclamation researchers then urged building wetlands with acid- tolerant cattails and sphagnum mosses to somehow trap and negate the heavy metals that leach from mines. Scientists don’t understand fully how wetlands work, but they do work, and the industry slowly is adopting the process.
More than 100 artificial wetlands were created at mine sites in southwestern Pennsylvania last year, Skousen said. ″More and more people are finding wetlands can reduce contaminants. We’re not sure how long these will continue. What happens when they dry up? That’s one of the big questions.″
The plants themselves absorb only a minute amount of the heavy metals. Indications are that most of the action is at the microscopic level. Once the heavy metals are removed, acidity is easily lowered with a wash of limestone.
Davison, who four years ago quit her teaching job to open Lambda Environmental Technologies Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, has been on the microbe trail since the bog discovery. For years, she and high school teacher Barbara Harris gathered and experimented with every kind of wetland microbe they could get their hands on, digging in muck from Florida to Canada.
In the end, Davison bred microbes that attack specific metals. One oxidizes iron, others do the same to aluminum, sulfur or manganese. They chelate, or bond with, the metals so they can oxidize and drop out of the water.
Then comes the real kicker. The redeposited iron resembles the pyrites laid down millions of years ago when the coal seams were created. ″We’re creating a situation for forming coal,″ Skousen said.
Microbes have other potentials, in removing sulfur from coal that otherwise would be discarded, in treatment of polluted water, in mining uranium and gold, and in pesticide usage.
Davison’s process is called an Immobilized Microbial Pollution Purification System and she says only she has it.
The microbiologist and her nine employees isolate and hybridize the bugs in a basement laboratory in Columbus, grow them in vats in Dayton, Ohio, and, from an office in Morgantown, plot their release into special mine drainage ponds.
Patents are pending on the microbes, their mixes, and the growing mediums that allow the organisms to live in acid water in the first place.
″I developed the bugs. I found which microbes do what. I know which bugs work, and what their proper balance is,″ she said. ″But they say, ’If it’s that simple, then why in the hell didn’t Penn State discover it?‴
Texas A&M University has selected Davison to join a $189 million project to build a demonstration treatment pond at a lignite strip mine site there.
But the industry itself has been slow to take the bait.
State Energy Department spokesman Roger Hall said Davison’s results have been amazing in the laboratory, but less impressive in the field.
″They haven’t reached the point where they’ve totally eliminated the problem,″ Hall said. ″They need to do some work on it.″
He cited the use of the microbe system on an acidic mine drainage problem in Garrett County, Md. Davison’s microbes have remarkably reduced iron levels in the water, but not consistently brought them within regulatory levels.
Davison says that with more time the levels will be in compliance. ″Everyone has laughed at the wetlands and laughed at our microbes. They say you can never get that many bugs together to treat so much runoff. But it works. We can engineer any site in order to handle the drainage.″
At Peabody Coal’s Robinhood mine in Boone County, for instance, Davison’s company will treat 50 to 100 gallons a minute of acid runoff with a solid bed of microbe-seeded dirt beneath a pond of microbe-seeded water.
Federal Office of Surface Mining agronomist Eric Perry in Pittsburgh said coal operators might be more willing to give the process a try if they knew how it worked. He said the industry ″is very conservative, especially about something that appears to be a black box with bugs inside it.″
Davison is keeping her bugs in the box by design. Exactly what they are and what they do will not be published until she has a patent.
Lambda has successfully treated acid drainage at a handful of sites in Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, but Peabody’s applied technology program is its first major industrial contract.
For Peabody, she has cooked up a balanced ecosystem of 77 bacteria, 56 algae groups, seven fungi and 15 protozoa. A generic mix would be cheaper, but at this point, Davison cannot afford less than brilliant results.
Peabody Coal spends about $50,000 a year treating the mine now, Crawford said. Neither he nor Davison would say how much the microbe treatment will cost, but if it works, he said, the savings will be substantial.
″There’s no doubt about it. It would sure reduce our overall costs.″