Canola offers bioremediation for contaminated lands

By Ron Kotrba | November 01, 2007
During a half-hour interview broadcast on, Biodiesel Industries Inc. (BDI) founder Russ Teall alluded to research BDI is conducting in the Westlands Water District in California's Central Valley, where canola planting on selenium-contaminated land has resulted in bioremediation of the soil while providing a biodiesel feedstock on marginal lands.

Extended irrigation with salt water has reduced toxic levels of selenium, a sodium-based nutrient vital to humans and animals in trace amounts. As essential as selenium is, the substance can be fatal in higher doses, which is why land in the Westlands Water District is no longer used for food crops. "They've closed it down," Teall said in the interview. "There's no water available to it anymore. It's virtually valueless land."

Because the land had no value, it was a good place to test canola as a bioremediation crop. "We started growing canola on it and found that the canola actually takes the selenium out of the soil, and it ends up in the meal when they crush the feed," Teall said. The oil can be used for biodiesel production, and if levels of selenium in the meal are still too high to be safe, it can be blended with meal lacking the nutrient for synthesis into a nutritious animal feed.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has been studying the issue and is researching selenium-rich feed for livestock. "In the United States, selenium deficiency is typically a bigger problem than selenium toxicity," said ARS soil scientist Gary Banuelos. "Ranchers in selenium-poor regions either inject their animals with the mineral or add selenium supplements to feed." Banuelos said his studies showed that canola absorbed approximately half of the selenium in the soil to a depth of two feet in the Central Valley.

Where there's canola, there is always the risk of the persistent flea beetle, which can quickly destroy seedlings not long after emergence from the soil, according to the Canola Council of Canada. Canola seedlings grown during hot, dry weather conditions are more susceptible to destruction by flea beetle feeding, which could be a problem in the Westlands Water District. Teall wouldn't make additional comments on the subject.
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