Field Lab

One mini-grant went to Kaja Kühl, who has used it to develop her Field Lab, an edu­ca­tional biore­me­di­a­tion project at a com­mu­nity gar­den in the South Bronx. You can fol­low the progress of Kaja’s project on the accom­pa­ny­ing blog. Below is her orig­i­nal pro­posal for Field Lab.

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A research and edu­ca­tion gar­den to clean up con­t­a­m­i­nated soil at la Finca Del Sur, South Bronx (138th Street and Grand Concourse)

by Kaja Kühl, youarethecity​.com

This project aims to increase cit­i­zen knowl­edge about soil con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and how to reme­di­ate it in a slow but low-cost process. In a test gar­den in the South Bronx, vis­i­tors will be able to see phy­tore­me­di­a­tion plants at work together with an edu­ca­tional instal­la­tion to explain and mon­i­tor the process.

In New York City, 7.1% of the land is cur­rently vacant. This equals 11,000 acres of under­uti­lized land, roughly the size of Man­hat­tan. Much of it is pos­si­bly con­t­a­m­i­nated by pre­vi­ous indus­trial uses on the site or left­over build­ing mate­ri­als, espe­cially lead-based paint. Uti­liz­ing this land for food pro­duc­tion, recre­ation or hous­ing is not safe unless, the soil and ground­wa­ter are free of toxins.

Reme­di­a­tion — typ­i­cally in the form of exca­va­tion of con­t­a­m­i­nated soil– is costly. Instead, many of these prop­er­ties lie vacant for years, under­uti­lized and toxic; their value damp­ened by sights of aban­don­ment and poten­tial contamination.

La Finca del Sur is one such site, tugged between the Major Dee­gan Express­way and Metro North rail­way tracks. In 2009, a group of women began to trans­form this aban­doned site into an urban farm. The soil is con­t­a­m­i­nated, so plants are grown in raised beds with plas­tic sheet­ing sep­a­rat­ing them from the con­t­a­m­i­nated soil below. A por­tion of the land, which showed the high­est lev­els of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion was left untouched.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the farm­ers at La Finca, we are propos­ing a research and edu­ca­tion gar­den on this por­tion of the land, where selected plants will remove heavy met­als from the soil through phytoremediation.

By har­ness­ing the nat­ural capa­bil­i­ties of plants you can reme­di­ate toxic soils, ground­wa­ter, sur­face water, and sed­i­ments. Phy­tore­me­di­a­tion is a low-cost alter­na­tive to tra­di­tional brown­field reme­di­a­tion. Instead of remov­ing tons of toxic soil and fill­ing the site with new clean soil, plants remove con­t­a­m­i­nants from the soil and store it within their plant tis­sue. Con­t­a­m­i­nants suc­cess­fully removed in field stud­ies have included heavy met­als, radionu­clides, chlo­ri­nated sol­vents, petro­leum hydro­car­bons, poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls (PCBs), pes­ti­cides and explosives.

In this par­tic­u­lar site, high lev­els of lead, chromium, cad­mium and arsenic are found in the soil. The test gar­den will con­tain Indian mus­tard, alpine pen­ny­cress, Chi­nese Brake Fern and sun­flow­ers, all known to have the abil­ity to accu­mu­late these con­t­a­m­i­nants. In con­junc­tion with these plants, we will design edu­ca­tional mark­ers, to be placed through­out the gar­den. The mark­ers explain the process of phy­tore­me­di­a­tion to vis­i­tors and visu­al­ize the test results at each of their loca­tion. They will be updated with each new test phase and allow farm­ers to track the progress of this experiment.

The project will be accom­pa­nied with a series of pub­lic tours / events at the farm dur­ing the sum­mer months of 2011 and 2012 and a field guide that offers a step-by-step instruc­tion, how to clean up your own lot.