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Banking on Soil

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What’s a commodity in short supply in many large cities? There are many possible answers—parking spaces, reliable public transportation, affordable housing—but New York City is focusing on dirt.

As this New York Times article explains, the city has set up a Clean Soil Bank, “a soil exchange that pairs local builders with environmental restoration projects that need fill materials.” It’s part of the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation.

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For decades, excavated soils from construction sites within the city—as much as 3 million tons a year—have been assumed to be contaminated and treated as toxic waste, trucked out of the city to special disposal sites. Lead and arsenic are common contaminants, and although the main sources—lead-based paints and leaded gasoline—have largely been eliminated, the materials remain in the soil. Now, however, the city is taking a closer look and realizing that any heavy metal contamination occurs only in surface soils, and the material from deeper excavations can be used in restoration projects. In addition, since Hurricane Sandy, the city is building up levees and attempting to create new coastal wetlands to prevent storm damage—all of which requires large amounts of soil.

Until recently, the article reports, that dirt was imported from quarries outside the city, at a cost of $30 to $60 per ton plus transportation costs. Since it was started about five years ago, the Soil Bank has arranged for half a million tons of soil to be taken from excavation sites to projects where it’s needed, with an overall savings to both the construction companies that would otherwise have to dispose of it and to the recipient projects of about $30 million.

As Dan Walsh, a geochemist who heads the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation, explains, “We’re essentially matchmakers. We don’t stockpile the soil, so both a donor and a recipient have to be ready at the same time. Our job is to coordinate the transfer.” Although the idea is not new—the US Army Corps of Engineers arranges for dredged material to be used in nearby projects in various states, for instance—Walsh says this is the first such exchange managed by a municipal government, and it’s getting attention from cities around the world that are interested in setting up something similar.

You can find more information on the Clean Soil Bank here. Are you aware of similar exchanges—official or informal—in other areas?

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