Lou Licht, founder of Ecolotree, shows off a stand of poplar trees, which he says could help treat some of Iowa's environmental problems. Photo by Jim Malewitz

NORTH LIBERTY – Lou Licht was once a polluter – aiding and abetting companies that spewed toxins into the air and water.

Today he could hardly be greener.

With a quick-growing, toxic-zapping tree and a patented technique, Licht cleans up the types of messes he once helped create. His professional and environmental interests are wrapped up in trees, and he hopes to apply his work in Iowa.

He’s an entrepreneur with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. But in some ways, Licht still is like the dairy farmer he grew up as. Only now, he grows things. His crops are poplar trees that filter fine particles and formaldehyde from the air. When planted in swales, they retain and filter water from rain, reducing storm surges and runoff in flood-prone states like Iowa. And, they can treat sewage.

“In the case of Iowa, where we are surrounded by farmland, the right 15-20 acres can do all the tertiary treatment for a town of 1,000 people,” he said.

Licht, a native of Lowden, Iowa, lives in a North Liberty home surrounded by poplars.  Wearing thin-rimmed glasses and black zip-up vest over a long-sleeved beige shirt one breezy October morning, he talked about his professional evolvement, the pollution-fighting trees and his hopes for what they could do for Iowa’s environmental problems.

As he spoke, the sun peaked through the thick forest of spindling trees that shield much of his lake from view. Topped with thin patches of still-green leaves, those trees dot the landscape of the few acres Licht calls home. Green-brown, expansive space, accented with the chirping of birds, it is the type of place where you might expect to find someone who studies trees.

But Licht doesn’t just study trees. He plants them – by the thousands each year in places like Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, and gets thousands of dollars to do it. He’s not an in-your-face ecologist who lambastes mankind for the rape of Mother Earth. He’s a businessman who speaks of incentives and convergence. To him, cleaning the environment isn’t a moral issue. “It just makes sense,” he said.

But why would the U.S. Air Force or companies like Tyco or Republic Waste, which is the second largest disposer of garbage nationally, want Licht’s trees? Why do scientists around the globe seek his advice?

Licht’s work is “awesome,” said Kenneth Yongabi, coordinator of Phytobiotechnology Research Foundation in Cameroon. “I have no doubt about the formidable treasure this technology has for the future.”

The trees work through a process called phytoremediation that involves tree roots, swales and surrounding microbes, and they save companies money, lot’s of it, he and his environmental colleagues say. They help clean polluted land, air and water.

One of his projects is in Slovenia, where land that once was oil refinery now is an 18-hole golf course still lined with some of the trees he planted years before.

In Iowa, Licht says his methods could help deal with poorly treated sewage. More than 700 un-sewered communities discharge 1.2 billion gallons of poorly treated sewage into state waters, according to two studies by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited in a 2005 Iowa Policy Project report. Upgrading those systems to new federal standards can cost millions.

But regulators in Licht’s home state are reluctant to permit his work.

Satya Chennupati, the Department of Natural Resources’ wastewater section supervisor, said Licht’s research sounds exciting, but Licht had “no data associated with it for applications in Iowa.”

The process of phytoremediation. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Gene Parkin, a University of Iowa professor, who is doing similar research on a mini-wetlands system that treats wastewater, agreed more “hard, robust data” is important, but said, “we’re pretty confident Lou’s system and this mini-wetlands system will work.”

Licht’s trees eliminate the chemicals in wastewater. “Every drop of water passes within an inch of a root,” he said. Those roots and microbes – the tiny organisms around them – breakdown pollutants like pathogens, ammonia, spilled oil or pharmaceuticals.

Poplar Science

Before trees took over his life, Licht was a typical foe of conservationists. While growing up on a dairy farm he would shovel manure onto the snow that he knew would wash into Iowa’s waterways. Later, after getting his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Iowa, he worked as an engineer with several large chemical firms.  They weren’t evil, he says. They just didn’t know of better ways.

Licht became environmentally conscious in 1970, when he worked at a cellophane plant in Illinois, and noticed what it was putting into the Mississippi River.  “It was pretty rasty,” he said. On April 22, 1970, Licht wore a black armband to commemorate the first Earth Day. His boss made him take it off.

That’s where Licht learned companies paid millions to clean up their messes.

He learned about poplars in 1979, while on an alternative energy development commission in Oregon. There, he met a farmer who was harvesting poplars four times a year and learned how they absorb sunlight and carbon and transform molecules into bonds that release energy.

“Plants are the only significant force that reverses entropy,” he says. “It makes more organization from disorder. Everything else goes the other way.”

When Licht started teaching a nature design course at Oregon State University three years later, he compiled data showing how poplars can neutralize pollutants. Consider, for example, a troublesome nitrate from fertilizer-tainted groundwater.

“A poplar buffer destroyed it. It was gone,” Licht recalled, as a breeze rustled poplar leaves behind him.

As Licht began to realize the trees’ power, he headed back to the University of Iowa to pursue a doctoral degree, immersing himself in all things poplar. His senior design class helped him treat runoff from Interstate 80 while harvesting the poplars for renewable energy.  With the university’s help, he got a patent for the treatment process.

In 1990, Licht went back to Oregon to present some research and landed a contract to plant three acres of trees to clean Lakeside Reclamation Landfill in Beaverton. Back home, he incorporated his company. Ecolotree, Licht called it, which rhymes with “ecology.”

Inside his office, Licht points to some of the phyto research stacked on his shelves. – Photo by Jim Malewitz

Since then, Ecolotree has designed, planted and maintained poplar forests at military sites, for companies and communities trying to address ecological liabilities. It was the first company in the world to market trees for their cleaning abilities.

The process starts when Licht’s crews prepare the soil for the trees’ survival and sculpt the land, sometimes into a bowl around the poplars, so that all the water passes by their roots. “In many of these instances, a shallow plume can be intercepted by the installation of a poplar forest to extract the impacted groundwater,” said William Schubert, group disposal director for Waste Management, who worked with Licht on two projects in Illinois.

In 1994, the American Consulting Engineers Council named Ecolotree’s landfill leachate management project one of the 25 most innovative and valuable projects in the country.

A growing field

Recently, Licht went to an international phytoremediation conference in Europe. It showed that “phyto” is still gaining as a legitimate solution to messy environmental problems, Licht says. But advocates for it still lament the obstacles that prevent the field going mainstream – mainly the reluctance of regulators, including Iowa’s DNR.

Chennupati said that he wants more proof that Licht’s system works in Iowa’s cold winters and ammonia-rich conditions.

Richard Leopold, director of Iowa’s DNR until last August, said in an email he can understand such reservations.

“The department can’t take risks on unproven technology,” he said, though not specifically addressing Licht’s research.

“I am all for “alternative” treatment technologies, and worked hard [at] the Iowa DNR to streamline permitting of such processes. The DNR can’t be in a place that they permit a treatment, and it doesn’t work.”

Licht said his projects in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states with Iowa-like conditions speak for themselves and that phyto “works across state and national boundaries.”

“When it’s good to go, really, what’s the deal?”

Anne Alexander, a post-doc in environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, who interned with Ecolotree, said Licht’s system should treat ammonia and work in winter as soil temperature a few feet below ground stays near 54 degrees year round. The system treats less water in winter as poplars stop slurping and transpiring, but microbes continue to work below surface, she said.

“It doesn’t need to be taken up into the tree for the system to function.”

Another of Licht’s challenges is to get farmers on board. States like Iowa, where pesticides and fertilizer flow into rivers, need what Licht does. But farmers aren’t interested in his poplars, he says, because improved water quality doesn’t increase yields.

Nevertheless, he’s seen success. In 2009, the company had its best year, completing 17 projects in 11 states. But Licht has kept Ecolotree small to minimize risk.

It is stress-free simplicity, he said. And he likes it that way.

(Jim Malewitz is an IowaWatch staff writer and a masters professional journalism student specializing in non-profit journalism at the University of Iowa. He is also a journalism intern at the University’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, where he first heard about Lou Licht’s work.)

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