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The 100% Solution : Microbiologist Bill Frankenberger Was Certain He Could Clean Up the Kesterson Toxic Disaster. All He Needed Was a Chance to Prove It.

May 28, 1989|J. E. FERRELL | J. E. Ferrell is a free-lance science writer who lives in Davis.

ON MARCH 20, 1987, an agitated laboratory technician slapped a newspaper into the hands of Bill Frankenberger, 34-year-old associate professor of soil microbiology and biochemistry at UC Riverside. Frankenberger slumped into a chair, put on his glasses and began to read. Suddenly, he jolted upright, excited . . . devastated.

According to the article, the state of California had decided how to solve an ecological disaster at Kesterson Reservoir in the Central Valley. Toxic levels of selenium there had killed hundreds of birds and contaminated countless others. Now, the marshy ponds were to be drained and the soil scraped into a $48.2-million, 20-foot-high toxic dump--a permanent poison island the size of 40 football fields.

Frankenberger jumped to his feet and strode across the hall. He shoved the newspaper at his assistant, Ulrich Karlson, a fast-talking, intense 30-year-old German two years out of graduate school. As Karlson read, his eyes widened. "My God," he said.

In test tubes just 10 feet from where they stood was an alternative to the poison island, the product of two years of research. Their findings had not yet been published or field-tested, but if Frankenberger and Karlson were right--and they were sure they were right--there was a way to clean up Kesterson naturally, cheaply and permanently.

In the test tubes were microscopic fungi that ate selenium and burped it out as a non-toxic gas. It was no secret that such microbes existed; they were a natural component of Central Valley soils. But Frankenberger and Karlson had coerced the fungi into gobbling selenium as fast as 200 times the normal rate. At that rate, Frankenberger calculated, they might clean up Kesterson in just one year.

But not if the contaminated land was bulldozed into a dump. The fungi lived, ate and burped only in the upper 6 inches of soil. They couldn't make a dent in a 20-foot pile of dirt.

Frankenberger and Karlson decided that they had to "get somebody's attention." In hindsight, Frankenberger regards it as the moment he tumbled from the ivory tower of research science into a bewildering world of politics, bureaucracy and public policy. He prepared himself for failure--"We always thought we would be too late," he remembers. But he was not prepared for two years of crusading, risking his reputation and research, fighting with environmentalists and taking on government bureaucrats. He was not prepared for the difference between the world of the laboratory, where compromise is unheard of, and the outside world, where compromise is the rule--where he could win spectacularly and lose spectacularly at exactly the same time.

KESTERSON Reservoir, 1,280 acres of irrigation evaporation ponds near the middle of California, was eerily quiet in 1983. Quieter, at least, thought U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists, than the surrounding marshes of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Grasslands, a private marshlands reserve. The marshlands were usually a duck's version of the Ritz Hotel, a choice spot along the Pacific Flyway, the wetlands route followed every year by thousands of migrating shore birds and waterfowl. In 1983, however, Kesterson Reservoir had turned into a duck's version of Hotel Hell.

When the biologists investigated, they found grossly deformed bird embryos missing wings, legs and toes. Beaks of black-necked stilts curved grotesquely; brains protruded through holes where eyes should have been. Biologists also found hundreds of dead adult birds. And a flock of tricolor blackbirds, indigenous to the marshes, had an unexplained nesting failure: Thousands of eggs never hatched.

Headlines raged; environmentalists screamed for action; politicians demanded to know what happened.

It took two years for the state to declare that high levels of selenium--a trace element found in soils and rock--were responsible for the mutations and mortality. In very small amounts, selenium is essential to life. Ten parts per billion in water and 4 parts per million in soil are considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In some areas of Kesterson, the levels had soared to 3,000 parts per billion in the water and 250 parts per million in the soil.

The source of the disaster was California's No. 1 industry: irrigated agriculture. The state's farmers sold $16.1 billion in agricultural products last year alone, but the riches have come at a price. As land is irrigated, the water leaches substances such as salts, pesticides and selenium from the soil. High evaporation rates concentrate the substances, and bad drainage, common in arid regions, traps what doesn't evaporate. Over time, the soil fills with contaminants or contaminated water. Draining the water and flushing the soil only moves the problem elsewhere.

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