Microbe Managing the World, One Step at a Time

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By Linda Cicoira — A local venture with a natural approach to cleaning up the environment is being nurtured “the old-fashioned way.”

There is no rich tycoon with a huge financial investment involved despite that the concept is revolutionary.

The principals of Eastern Shore Microbes, of Belle Haven, are hoping to bring commerce to the Eastern Shore, possibly save taxpayers’ money, recycle in a new way, and even help poultry operators market chicken litter fertilizer across the globe.

They haven’t pinpointed the exact value of their product. But the money aspect is not what drives them. They are trying to stop earthquakes and pollution.

The feat is somewhat secretive and consequently had three guys pacing this week.

Scientist Russell Vreeland and his 40-plus years of study; his friend, John Long, with his farmer know-how; and Beasley, the canine executive vice president for employee morale, waited for a delivery of some of the nastiest containers of water to ever cross the Continental Divide.

The Monday delivery from Colorado turned into the Tuesday delivery from Delaware, where the truck had another stop. It was unclear what else travels with 1,650 gallons of brown sludgy water divided into six containers.

The task is to treat wastewater —  in this case the stuff that cow hides were thrown into after being treated right off the animal with tons of salt. The local company introduces tiny organisms that will clean the liquid. They add nutrients, including 40-pound sacks of cheaply bought yeast that were made for human consumption but didn’t make the grade and would have been tossed in a landfill. The combination will help quickly evaporate out fresh water so that nothing but sediment is left.

Vreeland and Long are going to add their cocktail right to the containers of wastewater and then ship it all back so the new mixture can be added to a lagoon. Eventually, the salt sediment could be used there to treat roads before snow storms.

“You can’t dispose of this,” Vreeland said of the wastewater that looked more like sludge when shown in a laboratory flasks. “This stuff is so salty if you dump this on ground you kill the ground, you kill the plants. Most of these places are agricultural places. And it’s going to stay dead for a long time. It’s so high in biological waste that you can’t dump it in the ocean. You can’t bury it. We’re going to take what we grow here and inoculate their big lagoons.”

Sometimes companies dump it down what is called an injection well, a device that places fluid deep underground into porous rock formations, such as sandstone or limestone, or into or below the shallow soil layer. The fluid may be water, wastewater, brine salt water, or water mixed with chemicals.

“More than 100 billion gallons of contaminated wastewater are produced each year,” said Vreeland. “Other disposal methods damage the environment or require expensive machines” that eventually wear out. “ESM’s microbes eat the waste and heat the wastewater to effectively clear the contaminants. Our process uses no external energy and no additional building. We work to help restore the environment in a natural, clean and efficient manner.”

The Colorado plant, owned by Cargill Foods, which Vreeland described as the largest food producing corporation in the world, also sells salt. “They have two lagoons that are full. We’re going to treat one and not the other to show them that one is going to evaporate fast. That is how they’ll know that it works.”

Vreeland, a former college professor and researcher, got started as a graduate student around 1974, when he “first came across the phenomenon. It’s just taking natural organisms and using them in the proper environments. I spent the next 40-some years studying it, collecting organisms … at various universities … It can’t be patented because it’s a natural product. We’re just taking advantage of a natural process. The Supreme Court has said you can’t patent that but you don’t have to tell anybody what you’re doing.”

Vreeland compared his microbes to the ingredients in Coca Cola, which was also never patented. “They have never devulged their recipe and neither will I.” He tried this for a Canadian company several years ago, had it working but was unable to maintain it when the company was sold and the new owners stopped the venture. Vreeland said they now have full lagoons and are looking for a way out.

“They were in a circumstance in which they had all this water,” said Vreeland. “When they bought the company, they had three lagoons the same size and another as big as all three. They built the big one before we started and then they didn’t need it.”

“It slaughtered 1,000 head a day,” he said. “The plant in Colorado is even bigger. They are doing about 7,000 a day.”

Locally, Vreeland said the possibilities for his micrdobes are endless. For example, he wants to decrease the amount of leachate that comes from the Northern Landfill in Accomack County to save hundreds of thousands of dollars charged in Maryland where it is trucked.

Vreeland said his microbes can clean up behind nuclear power plants and electric companies. He wants to change the bad reputation that microbes have.  “I can actually use good microbes to use good things — cleaning up the mess out there.”

“We’re throwing all this trash underground and causing all this stuff with earthquakes,” he said. “Prior to 2015, in Oklahoma, where they dispose of a lot of water in underground wells, they did not have an earthquake in 300 million years. In 2018, with their injection wells, they had 1,500. One of which was strong enough to knock fronts off of buildings.”

It’s the fact that they are drilling for oil and they have all this salt water that they pushed down the hole and they are doing fracking. We’re pulverizing and fracking the foundations of North America.”

Vreeland said they can also treat acidic lagoons and fertilizers. He mentioned a fertilizer made in California and used locally for potato production.

The process could also condense an 8-square-mile lithium plant in Brazil and reduce the time it takes to harvest with increased evaporation rates, Vreeland said. “If we get some of these things going, 95% of our revenue will come from outside the area … and we’re going to spend it locally.”

John Long got involved after forming a friendship with Vreeland at the local beekeepers group. Long likes the green effect of the undertaking — how it involves recycling and cleaning up the environment.

For fun, Vreeland also also makes his own beer and mead.