Butte Remediation
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Butte Remediation provides soil testing, bioremediation
services, consulting, and educational outreach

Established in 2018 in response to the Camp Fire that ravaged Northern California, Butte Remediation provides support to home and property owners by testing soils for contamination, targeting the contaminants with fungi capable of remediating those toxins, and measuring success with follow-up fungal tissue and soil sampling. On the most basic level this program contributes to understanding the scope and types of contaminants generated by urban firestorms and provides open-source mycoremediation techniques that can be employed to mitigate fallout from future fires.

Butte Remediation and Fire Recovery

Mushrooms sprouting from wattle, Butte County, Calif.

Butte Remediation was born out of the ashes of the Camp Fire which started November 8, 2018, quickly became the most destructive and deadly wildfire in state history. The fire originated on Camp Creek Road near the town of Pulga and spread at the rate of 1 football field per second. It killed 86 people, displaced tens of thousands, and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings. In the wake of the Camp Fire there was wide spread toxic contamination in the forms of heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and benzene. Burned vehicles and homes had a host of toxic compounds that have been released into the environment, exacerbated by heavy rains directly afterwards. These contaminants present a risk to human health and safety, waterways, and wildlife. These contaminants are both acutely toxic and carcinogenic and when left unchecked precipitate into the waterways and soils, move up through the food chain and bioaccumulate in animals and aquatic life. The western United States continues to see unprecedented fire storms; understanding the resultant environmental pollutants and how to mitigate their impact is critical.

Fungal infused wattle, a biological buffer, Butte County, Calif.

In the event of high intensity fires, areas of high heat the heavy clay soils of our region become hydrophobic, due to the baking of the clay soil but also due to resins and waxes produced by incinerated plant matter. With the extended time frame on debris cleanup in fire events, and the heavy rains that are commonly experienced in an ever-changing climate, the contamination from burned homes and vehicles both infiltrate the soil and flow into the watershed as surface runoff. As such there will be persistent and carcinogenic contamination in the environment for the foreseeable future. Commonly in debris removal contractors will be required to remove soil from the ash-footprint until no contamination is found, however this approach fails to take into consideration the spread of toxins via wind and rain. There will also be other burned debris and small structures that will not be within the scope of the structural cleanup that may still be an environmental hazard. In the case of the Camp Fire, properties that did not have a structure larger than 120 square feet were not eligible for the public cleanup program. In this circumstance the property owner were responsible for cleanup. For private properties in this situation soil testing and mitigation of toxic soils was not required, and could be cost prohibitive to the land owner. This is the demographic that Butte Remediation seeks to support.

Introduction to Mycoremediation

Mushroom fruit body growing from contaminated soils

Fungi are the biological engines of the natural world, and have been long recognized as critical to soil health. In soils, fungi build micropores that help with water infiltration and build “water stable aggregates;” the thing that helps soil stand up to rain and prevent pooling and muddy conditions. Fungi serve as beneficial and symbiotic organisms, parasites, and most significantly are the only organisms that are capable of breaking down the cellulose and lignin in wood. The enzymes that break down the complex and resistant molecules in wood (specifically lignin) can be applied to breaking down persistent and toxic chemicals in the environment. The lignin degrading enzymes can be applied to the remediation of a whole host of persistent organic contaminants including benzene and polycyclic aromatic compounds (fuels and tars), chlorinated aromatic compounds (from light fixtures, paints, and transformers), and dioxins (which are naturally generated in the wake of forest fires, but also burning plastics).

In addition fungi have demonstrated the ability to uptake heavy metals. Heavy metals like lead, zinc, cadmium, and chromium cannot be broken down and as such will need to removed from the environment. Fungi have the unique trait in which they will chelate and absorb these ions from the environment. While some research indicates the potential to translocate these metals to the above-ground portion of the fungus (i.e. the mushroom itself) for removal, our research indicates very little of this. That being stated, research also indicates that even dead mycelium can absorb heavy metals.

Erosion control materials like wattles and jute fabric are universally employed in response to fire events. Research generated through the efforts of Butte Remediation shows support for the idea that by augmenting the erosion control efforts that are already put into place in a fire event we can greatly improve our Best Management Practices. That is, by incorporating fungal biology into the materials we already deploy in fire events it may be possible to biologically immobilize the heavy metals found in toxic sediment and reduce the toxicity of surface flow ash through the biodegradation of persistent organic pollutants.

We live in a world where we have extracted ores and minerals from the soil. When a natural disaster acts upon these materials in their altered, refined, extracted states, it becomes difficult to return them to a place that is not a danger to human health and the environment at large. Mycoremediation provides some, albeit imperfect, solutions to the impossible problems we face after natural disasters.

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Cheetah Tchudi, Butte Remediation, Butte County, Calif.

Cheetah Tchudi
Program Director
Butte Remediation


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This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number G333-20-W7900 through the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under project number W20-365. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.