Minimizing the Waste Stream

A lot of my environmental work in urban and rural areas has centered around poverty, natural resource extraction and social justice issues. Along the way, I have learned a lot about food deserts, farming, healthy food and sustainable agriculture.

I wrote this piece, below, for the February 2017 edition of Acres Magazine. It combines my interest in abandoned coal mines with the impact of unhealthy rivers and waterways.


farmcropsFarmers who study healthy soil for a living understand the value of balancing the chemical, physical and biological aspects of soil health with diverse microorganisms and aggregates that are free of toxins. Even if you don’t fully understand how biological diversity works, you can certainly relate to the lushness that healthy soil produces.

As global leaders look for solutions to mitigate waste streams and industrial byproducts, scientists are looking to gain feedback from farmers using natural and synthetic soil amendments on their fields and farms. Beneficial uses of flue gas desulfurization (FGD) gypsum derived from power plant emission control systems and uncontaminated dredged material, for example, are being discussed at business forums and workshops to determine whether farmers perceive these non-traditional inputs as useful.

Numerous studies have been written about gypsum’s ability to improve soil, increase crop production and remove contaminants from runoff. Gypsum is a mineral that can be obtained from both mines and as by-product from power plant emission control systems. There is also a push to utilize much of the dredge material from shipping channel deepening and river maintenance that has previously been hauled away to landfills or dumped into navigable lakes and shipping channels.

From Green Bay, Wisconsin to Apollo Beach, Florida, state and local agencies are teaming up with research scientists, businesses and entrepreneurs to create pilot programs to re-utilize these particulate waste streams as safe and effective beneficial use products.  Even the USDA is making a major push to study these alternatives as part of a strategic plan. New soils can be created, they say, and new blends developed to maintain productive cropland for food, feed, fiber and energy production.

Chris Hardin, an organic farmer, a geotechnical engineer and Professional-In-Residence at the UNC Charlotte Energy Production Infrastructure Center, has been studying the land-applied uses of coal combustion residuals (CCRs) and dredge materials for years. In addition to his own research, Hardin speaks to a number of successful case studies that address how properly characterized dredged materials and coal combustion residuals material can be used to nourish beaches, repair eroding shorelines, establish flat and tillable land, and replenish aquatic habitats.

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