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Chit’n’Chat: Schuykill Oil Spill

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A yellow boom surrounds the immediate spill area

A yellow boom surrounds the immediate spill area

A yellow boom corralled ice floats on Schuylkill River just below the Market Street bridge, some rust-tinged and most looking as though it had been sprinkled with a bit of turmeric.

A group of men looked down at ice floating farther down along the Schuylkill River Trail, one of whom, an official from the Philadelphia Water Department, wagged his head solemnly as he spoke of the 4,200 gallons of heating oil that spilled into the river Monday.

Either restricted from saying too much to the public or as in the dark as most news sites reporting on the situation, he said the oil leaked out from a nearby, unknown or -specified facility. Downriver, as I noticed biking up the trail, was a noticeable oil sheen, and the air smelled quite heavily of oil. He motioned toward the ice enclosed in an oval by the boom and said that, rather than improving the effort by trapping the oil, the ice was just making progress slower.

The only thing to do at this point, he said, was monitor the water downstream while skimming the oil from the surface of the water and sucking the rest into a large hose leading into giant storage tanks on the Schuylkill embankment.

Interestingly enough — or not, depending on your definition of “interesting” — I recently happened on a book, Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone, in the Philadelphia public library that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out in 2011, months after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

Schuylkill River Oil Spill 2

Closer view of the yellow/rust-tinged oil among ice floats

While parts of the book make me salivate what with the author’s descriptions of cheeses (fungus — or mold, rather — being responsible for the production of some of my favorites including Gorgonzola and Blue cheese) and wine pairings with mushrooms, it’s loaded with fascinating information on the brilliant ways funguses – or fungi, if you’d rather – can break down even the most chemically complex of structures. Oil being one of them.

In the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill, cleanup organizers used a combination of hair and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) to absorb and break down oil from a cargo ship that rammed the base of a Bay Bridge tower, spilling 58,000 gallons of fuel. And other such “mycoremediation” efforts have taken place with varying levels of success.

It’s perhaps hard to believe fully that this promising method of bioremediation could work, but, then again, as Bone points out in her book, radioactive-tolerant and “-eating” fungus (radiotrophic; using melanin, which is present in varying levels in human skin, to convert the radioactive particles) has been found growing in the very confines of the present-day Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plants.

Schuylkill River Oil Spill 3

Facing south along the Schuylkill River Trail boardwalk

This subject, of course, also seems unusually far-flung from my usual posts on all-things botanical, but I’ve since learned that fungus is present in nearly all plants, within their cells and the surrounding soil, working in a long-held symbiotic relationship with their hosts, breaking down materials and forming mutualistic networks in forests to swap nutrients (as they do not photosynthesize) and also receiving and offering protection.

Although it’s said fungus is more related to humans than plants, it’s apparent that the latter cannot be studied neglecting mycology. Judging by the studies I’ve read, however, there appears to be a lot more work needing to be done before officials readily look to bioremediation for something like a 4,200-gallon oil spill in the Schuylkill.*


*The event was not considered a serious enough spill in coastal waters by one report. Also, on another note, according to a study, water temperature is very much a factor in the efficacy of mycoremediation, favoring warmer waters in cleanup efforts.


Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 29, 2016 at 9:08 pm

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