March 2006: The Coast Guard site before trees were planted. (NC State)
Researchers at North Carolina State University are demonstrating that trees can be used to degrade or capture fuels that leak into soil and ground water. Through a process called phytoremediation, plants and trees remove pollutants from the environment or render them harmless.

Dr. Elizabeth Nichols - a professor of Environmental Technology at NC State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources - and her team have partnered with state and federal agencies, the military, and industry to clean up a contaminated Coast Guard site in Elizabeth City, N.C.

About 3,000 trees were planted on the five-acre site, which stored aircraft fuel for the Coast Guard base from 1942 until 1991. Fuels had been released into the soil and ground water over time. Efforts to recover easily extractable fuel using a free product recovery system – or “oil skimmers” – had stalled, so other remedial options were considered before choosing phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation uses plants to absorb heavy metals from the soil into their roots. The process is an alternative to standard clean-up methods currently used, which can be expensive and energy intensive. At appropriate sites, phytoremediation can be a cost-effective and sustainable technology, according to Nichols.

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