For arsenic-free water, pull up your compost socks.

I realize that this post-title sounds as if I'd lost both my remaining marbles, or else as though I were trying to imitate the inimitable off-the-wall titles of the great Blogger from Blackpitts, James A-S himself. But no. As you will see.

Let us begin with the subject of spreading compost. Easy, right? All you need is a wheelbarrow and a shovel. Well. Check out the photo below.

Compost blanket ap. McCoy
Source: Compost: Completing the Cycle
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TECQ), 20

That, folks, is how they do it in Texas. Apparently, when they go for compost there, they do it big-time. (Why am I not surprised?)

Compost blankets like this one reduce runoff, making reseeding disturbed soil far quicker, more successful, and therefore economical than it is when using what are disparagingly referred to as "traditional methods." But that's not really the point here. The point is the machinery, which I'll return to in a minute.

Runoff is also slowed by compost berms and by compost socks (see? There is method in the madness.) which are net tubes filled with compost, mulch, or some mixture. These can be as small as a nylon stocking, when they're used to keep crud out of stormdrains, or considerably larger, when they're used on hillsides:

Blanket sock on slope
Source: USEPA Region 5 Waste
Compost Best Management Practice (BMP) Demonstration Plots

(If you look closely, you can see the long red hose leading to the upper tube; somewhere down below, a truck is parked, equipped with a pneumatic blower for blowing the compost mixture into the tube.)

These compost barriers not only slow run-off, they filter it, trapping not just silt, but nutrients and toxins–all sorts of stuff that we don't want in our waterways. In the picture below, the "sock" is the metal mesh tube in the lower left of the photo. If you look carefully, you can see that the water on top of it is muddy, while that downstream of it is so clear that it's hard to see.

Silt, clear water, McCoy
Compost: Completing the Cycle
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TECQ), 2005

I'd just been researching all this when I read about the recent disaster in Tennessee. It was immediately clear to me that what those folks needed was compost, and lots of it.* Let me explain.

Folks in Harriman, TN got an early Christmas present this year—a billion gallons of arsenic-laden sludge that spilled out of a holding pond at the local coal refinery on Dec. 22. Oh—and there’s other great stuff in the sodden ash that broke through its mud wall—stuff like mercury, for example, and selenium, and lead. And it’s all over these folks’ yards. Just what you want in your vegetable garden.

J. Miles Carey/Knoxville News Sentinel, via Associated Press25sludge2_600

Source: NY Times, Dec. 24, 2008

Like me, you may never have heard of coal ash spills, but if so it’s a good bet you don’t live in southern Appalachia. A spill in 1972 killed 125 people and washed away whole villages, and that one was only about 130,000 gallons. A fellow by the name of Robert Sayler spent over four years making a documentary about a Kentucky spill in 2000—and that spill was a third the size of this one. The movie is called Sludge.

Such disasters are not unique to Appalachia. Any coal-mining region can be hit, because we’ve devised no good method of storing the waste ash. In 1966, a spill at Aberfan, Wales, killed 144 people, most of them children.

No one died in the recent deluge, though it seems clear that that’s mostly a matter of luck and geography: The pond stood above flat land, not a steep canyon.

As the days passed and the sludge crept closer to the Emory River (it didn’t have far to go), I kept expecting someone to start trucking in compost by the ton and dumping it between the spill and the river. Though it sounds like an impossible job, I suspect that the equipment in the top photo could handle it. Look at the size of that crane!

I haven’t heard of compost being used to control a toxic spill, but it seems like an obvious thing to do, especially because compost can “capture” arsenic chemically and would therefore “fix” much of it before it reached the river. Such barriers wouldn’t have stopped the flow, but they could have strained out much of the silt and at least some of the toxic elements.

But that didn’t happen. The silt flow reached the nearby river, and as a result the pollution problem ballooned. There was an opportunity to avoid the worst, but it's gone now.


*Of course, I have compost on the brain at the moment, so the fact that I thought of compost when I read that story actually doesn't mean a damn thing. When I stopped writing a couple of days ago long enough to make granola, I called it "compost," not once, but three times.

5 Responses to For arsenic-free water, pull up your compost socks.

  1. When I was growing up in Colorado we had a small little mine up the hill. I haven’t a clue as to what they mined. They had a small holding pond. Well one day it flash flooded (not unusual in the Colorado mountains) and the holding pond broke. It turns out that the sludge was a bit radioactive. No one lost their homes or their lives, but we kids did lose our creek. We used to be able to play in it. It was great fun as a kid. Well until then at least.

  2. Yes, Emma. Precisely.
    Daphne, I hope that’s the saddest story I hear today, because if there’s another one like that coming my way, I’m not going to make it.

  3. Ok ok. This spring I will get the city to deliver free compost to me. 8 cubic yard to start. Just dump it on my yard and I’ll top dress and put most in my garden. There is the $50 delivery fee, but so what? Compost compost compost. If you say it enough it begins to feel sexy rolling off the tongue–and like some liturgy. I was just reading about how ND is spraying cattails in marshes to kill them off so balckbirds have nowhere to breed. Seems the birds eat 20 million bucks worth of sunflower seed each year (ND produces 50% of U.S. sunflower seed). Yeah, just spray the crap out of the planet. Way to “manage” the world we depend on. Manage is an oxymoron. Oh I’m getting wound up….

  4. If you’re going to get wound up, Benjamin, spraying the hell out of the planet is a good choice.
    However, before I spread tons of municiple compost on my yard, I’d find out a bit about it–like what temperature it reaches, which will tell you whether it’s weed-free.

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