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Great Lakes Article:

Zapping pollution away
Bob Kelleher
Minnesota Public Radio

One of the biggest challenges facing Great Lakes water quality comes from polluted harbors. Scores of underwater sites have been identified, but cleanup has been painfully slow. Now, some people in Duluth are taking a new approach. They're using an electrical charge to clean up pollutants. It's the first test in this country of the system. Supporters say it's cheaper and faster than conventional methods.

Duluth's Stryker Bay is a lovely little cove alongside the St. Louis River. It's a gentle water with ducks in the summer and a shady hiking path along the shore.

Tim Leland lives along Stryker Bay. From his home, he sees waterfowl, and fouled water.

"Stryker Bay is a shallow bay. It's six foot, at the most. But there's a silt that's underneath it, and all this tar and stuff that's coming up. (In) summertime we do have a lot of oil that comes up to the surface," says Leland.

The bottom of Stryker Bay is a biological time bomb.

Under the sand are pools of oily stuff experts call polynuclear aromatic-hydrocarbons, or PAHs. For nearly a century, Stryker Bay was an industrial sewer. PAHs were first identified under the bay in the 1970s. They're still there. There's not enough money, and little agreement, on how to get rid of them.

But what if you could make pollution, like PAHs, go away by throwing a switch? That's essentially what a German-based company promises -- and U.S. officials are listening. The first underwater test in the United States of electrochemical geo-oxidation treatment is underway in Duluth.

The early results show promise. It's a simple concept, according to Ken Whittle of Electro Petroleum Inc., who describes the process going on in a pair of water-filled pits behind him.

"It's a pretty simple kind of thing," Whittle says. "If you have a battery charger at home, you plug the battery charger in, you take the two leads so you connect them to the terminals on the battery. That's pretty analagous to what's going on here."

Each pit is filled with polluted mud and covered with several feet of water. Metal pipes are sunk into the muck.

In one pit, a carefully controlled electrical charge pushes electrons through the sediment between the pipes. It's supposed to break the electron bonds of dangerous molecules, like PAHs. What's left is harmless, like carbon and water.

The test is financed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for dredging shipping lanes. Dealing with polluted sediment is a huge expense, according to Army Corps researcher Tommy Myers.

"It's a real big problem for us to dispose of that material. We can't put it back into the water," Myers says. "We confine it in what we call a confined disposal facility, and just store the material into perpetuity and let it break down into natural processes, if it will."

Officials would rather destroy pollutants than store them, but conventional methods are expensive, smelly, and noisy. And they all require dredging.

"In this particular technology, it wouldn't necessarily require dredging," Myers says. "There's very little noise or gaseous emissions associated with it. The main thing is, it could be applied ... in the water, without having to dredge."

Proponents say electrochemical geo-oxidation is a bargain. Pollution officials say conventional methods might cost $200 to clean up a single cubic yard of sediment from Stryker Bay. But, according to David Bowman, with the Army Corps of engineers in Detroit, electrical cleanup might cost one-fourth as much.

"Our goal with this project was to find a technology that would work for around $100 a cubic yard," says Bowman. "The vendor talked about that they might be able to treat material for around $45 to $50 per cubic yard at Duluth Harbor."

And the contractor claims the process works fast. A typical site can be cleaned in just a few months. In the Duluth test, PAHs have decreased by 45 percent in about a month. That's promising, although far from conclusive. The process won't get every molecule, but it's intended to reduce contaminants below dangerous levels.

It's also supposed to work on metals, like mercury, which can be drawn to the electrodes. Even radioactive isotopes can be collected, according to the contractor.

The test begun in Duluth this summer is winding down now that cold weather has arrived. Final results are several months away. Meanwhile, the company has set up a second demonstration, under the waters of Puget Sound, off the coast of Washington state.

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