UC Berkeley researchers, community team up to eliminate toxic chemicals

Carli Baker/Staff
A weed-filled arsenic-contaminated lot in South Berkeley will be rejuvenated due to a fern that will suck the arsenic out of the soil.

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UC Berkeley researchers are teaming up with local organizations to plant thousands of ferns in a South Berkeley lot in an effort to extricate toxic chemicals and eventually create a new haven of green gardens.

The project, spearheaded by the campus department of environmental science and the citywide nonprofit organization Berkeley Partners for Parks, will experiment with pteris vittata, also known as the Chinese brake — a specialized fern known to extract a thousand times more arsenic from the soil than a typical plant. If successful, the city will then transform the area into a greenway lined with bicycle paths and trees.

According to John Steere, president of the BPFP, the organizers were given “the keys to the kingdom” on Monday and will begin transplanting the ferns in the next few weeks. The two-to-five-year lease to the land was approved by the city Oct. 16, after the initial application was submitted last year.

“This will provide an environmentally friendly and inexpensive tool to test the function of the fern to readily dispose of arsenic,” Steere said. “This will benefit South Berkeley by providing park space, but it also serves to prove these natural methods will work.”

The Santa Fe Right of Way, a mile-long strip west of Sacramento Street between Ward and Derby streets, was once part of a local railroad line that ran between Richmond and Oakland. The lot has since sat vacant for 40 years, infested with unruly weeds and traces of arsenic — which Steere speculated to be residual from the tracks.

In previous years, the city talked about transforming the right of way into an orchard but failed to approve any proposals after discovering arsenic in the soil. It was only two years ago that the organization consulted researchers at the campus for help.
UC Berkeley alumnus Anders Olson will manage the project and assistant professor Celine Pallud — who studies chemical transport and the control of contaminants within soil — will oversee the research.

The project is funded by a $40,000 campus grant, though further fundraising is still necessary. As stipulated in the grant, Pallud and the student researchers will regularly monitor the progress and report back to the campus.

“As a scientist, I like what I do, but it’s so nice to do work that actually benefits other people rather than publishing a paper and not knowing where your research goes or why it matters,” Pallud said.

Some residents near the site have expressed great anticipation for its renovation but also said they have grown skeptical of the project coming to fruition.

“This needs to be less of a bureaucratic effort and more of a grassroots community effort,” said Stephanie Agnew, who runs a child care service from her home. “Folks out there with shovels and dirt is more inspiring than meetings and meetings. In ten years, nothing has happened.”

However, nearby resident Greg Zimmerman, who has given researchers permission to use his water, said he appreciates the effort to remedy the “underdeveloped” side of town.

“It’s any city’s responsibility to keep the city safe when there are hazards,” Zimmerman said. “This project has a tangible benefit to the neighborhood both economically and recreationally, helping people appreciate the area and have pride of ownership.”

Contact Virgie Hoban at [email protected].