Technology & Free Enterprise Come Together To Save the Environment

Jonathan Brewer
Jonathon Brewer
Earthworks Environmental Founder

Editor’s note: As often as not, technology and free-enterprise are forces that can save the environment. A perfect example is Jonathan Brewer’s company EarthWorks Environmental, with a technology that transforms polluted soil into soil clean enough to grow crops. But delivering a technological solution is only the beginning of the fight. Environmental entrepreneurs can provide the courage and the innovation, but their efforts must be complemented by diligent reporting in the press, and serious attention from investors, if their solution is to get the visibility and financial backing necessary to scale up to something that will truly make the world a better place. This is especially true if, as is the case with EarthWorks, the solution will disrupt an established industry.

ROSEVILLE, CALIFORNIA Jonathan Brewer likens his soil remediation technology to the Wright Brothers’ airplane back in the early 1900′s. Why? Because the machines he’s designed are the first of their kind and can go where no man has gone before. They are a creative piece of engineering, and because of these machines, Mr. Brewer’s company, EarthWorks Environmental (www.EarthWorksUSA.com), looks like it has a strong future ahead of it. But still, like many examples in history of an established industry reluctant to take notice of the “seemingly simple”, Jonathan Brewer’s concepts encounter some reluctance from the soil treatment industry in general. While EarthWorks’ “METS” process, or Matrix Enhanced Treatment System, is ingenious and may possibly be the answer to much of the earth’s contaminated soil troubles, its adoption would cause major disruption to the existing multi-billion dollar soil remediation industry.

METS Rotor
METS Rotor

EarthWorks’ “METS” consists of SUV-sized soil crushing machines that are based on mining practice and technology. They are specially designed and engineered to be toxin-neutralizing powerhouses. A rotor inside each machine grinds soil into particles that are small enough to be effectively decontaminated. Various chemicals, bioreagents, bacteria, and enzymes are sprayed on the crushed contaminated soil particles as they travel through the machine, leaving the soil in a neutralized, natural, decontaminated state that, as Mr. Brewer says, “can be used in your garden.” The cleaning materials that are used to clean the soil are always bench tested first, and there is no threat of leakage from the machines. According to Mr. Brewer, “the only soil contaminants we can’t treat are radioactive uranium and plutonium isotopes.”

The company is based in California and has had several major contracts awarded for its onsite cleanup techniques, including, as the Sacramento Bee reports, “a $100 million federal contract given to a Foster Wheeler subsidiary to clean up US Navy and Marine installations, and a $400,000 National Institute of Health grant prospect.” EarthWorks’ machines are remotely controlled and compact enough to fit in standard 20-ft overseas shipping containers, which will help in EarthWorks’ hopes to export machines internationally in the near future.

2001 Most Innovative Product Award
Earthworks has garnered
honors for its products
(UC Davis Connect Award)

According to Brewer, the major factor holding these machines back from full integration into the marketplace is “comfort”. The environmental industry is “comfortable” with the current practice of landfilling hazardous and contaminated soil. Brewer says, “the current practice of landfilling doesn’t remedy the problem, it only moves it to be dealt with by future generations. With the METS technology, we now have the availability to permanently treat the soil, at lower cost than landfilling. It’s going to take some time for the industry to embrace this major change.”

How will this technology shake up the soil remediation industry? What often times happens where contaminated soil or hazardous waste is concerned is that it is shipped off to a landfill where it sits forever. These landfills have protections against contaminant leakage, providing the hazardous soil is within specified contamination limits. Earthworks’ ability to treat almost any contaminated soil on-site creates a great benefit for humanity and the earth. However, not every cleanup situation has proven optimal for Earthworks. A recent situation in a city in Sonoma county, California, shows that this type of echnology, no matter how wonderful, must battle with time and government regulations.

METS Processor
METS Processor
at a job site

In this case, in early 2002, EarthWorks won the bid to clean a contaminated sludge area in a competitive process. When interviewed, an official from the city’s Utilities Department, who requested EcoWorld to withhold his name and the name of his city from this report, described the case as consisting of “more than 10,000 tons of sludge and pond bottoms from oxidation ponds from old treatment plants.” The material required off site disposal with or without treatment. “The lead levels in this sludge,” he explained, “were above 5 parts per million, which is the STLC limit for municipal landfill disposal. When this was discovered, another company was hired in a competitive bidding process, which included both options for on site treatment and disposal, and also simply hauling and disposal as hazardous waste. The company was hired to mix the material with cement to bind the leachable lead into a non-soluble form, thus reducing STLC to non-hazardous levels and reducing total lead concentration by dilution, so the material could be shipped to a landfill as soon as possible.”

While the City Utilities Department official claims he is not opposed to onsite technology such as EarthWork’s manufactures, he was sure that the use of this technology was not best for this situation, especially because of time. He stated “onsite soil remediation technology is good for most materials and situations for which the cleanup process has no time constraints. We had to get this hazardous waste out of this area that was close to society, close to a creek and a river, in a location where the weather was unpredictable and unexpected rains could cause further leakage into the surrounding soil.” He explained that it was urgent to get the soil removed from the area, and shipping it to a Hazardous Waste landfill seemed the best option at the time, because it would have been quicker, and thus safer for the residents of the city. Also, using onsite technology would have created the need for time-consuming government decisions on regulation and oversight over how the soil cleanup would have been managed during the process, and how it would be monitored once the site was cleaned, which would have slowed the process further.

Besides confronting situations such as these time-sensitive ones, EarthWorks also faces in the soil remediation industry an entire network of jobs that have been secure for years for those people who transport soil to landfills and maintain the landfills. If EarthWorks’ onsite technology was used for all remediation sites and soil was cleaned up on-location, the need to transport to landfills would be greatly reduced. What would these people do? A lot of people would be without jobs, which is one of the reasons the soil remediation industry may not welcome the “new kid on the block” with open arms. When asked if he has any ideas to help overcome this problem, Mr. Brewer stated “transportation may still be needed by some sites that can’t afford the time or space for onsite cleanup. The soil could be transported somewhere else for treatment by METS machines, but treatment is always better than dumping!”

Overall it seems that EarthWorks may have a real goldmine on its hands, but certainly not before many industry obstacles have been overcome. These include the thousands of current jobs in trucking and hazardous waste landfills being lost or shifted, the urgent or time-constrained cleanup sites, government regulations and monitoring considerations, and just the overall acceptance of change. All of these are significant obstacles, but a process that cleans contaminated soil instead of sequestering it forever, while costing much less, ought to eventually prevail. It should be interesting to watch the EarthWorks’ METS process “take off” like the Wright Bros.’ plane so many years ago.

Earthworks’ Documented Field Results

The following projects were performed by EarthWorks Environmental, Inc. in the process of developing
the METS process for widespread commercial use. These projects were required to meet rigorous remediation standards established by regulatory authorities. The soil was treated as found, with no special preparation or enhancement.

In all cases, the treatment method involved a chemical/catalytic reaction to degrade the contaminant(s). In two cases, the soil was contaminated with more than one contaminant. Nevertheless, the soil was processed only one time in both cases.

Field Project #1: Field Project #2: Field Project #3:
Location: North
Central California
North
Coast California
Eastern
Wyoming
Volume of soil: 250
yd3
1915
yd3
2750
yd3
Contamination type(s): Diesel
fuel
Gasoline
and MTBE
Gasoline
and diesel fuel
Elapsed time for project: 18
hours
Fifteen
days
Nineteen days
Results from confirmation
testing:
Non-detect for diesel and BTEX
for all samples (sensitivity: parts- per-million
Non-detect for gasoline in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-million). Non-detect for MTBE in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-billion).
Non-detect for diesel fuel,
gasoline and BTEX (sensitivity at parts-per-million) for all samples.
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