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When floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina receded in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, much of the terrain was covered with smelly sludge and no one was sure what contaminants may have gotten into the soil. Expert advice was needed, and one scientist who got a call was Old Dominion University biogeochemist Joseph H. Rule.

Rule, who is professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and associate dean of the College of Sciences, and who has taught soils courses since coming to ODU in 1976, was contacted by the Center for Environmental Communications (CEC) at Loyola University in New Orleans.

The main question was this: Is it safe to plant vegetable gardens in soils that were subject to Katrina's floods?

In recent years, Rule has been an adjunct professor of horticulture at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Experimental Station in Virginia Beach, and his first advice to the CEC was for Louisianans to take full advantage of the services of Louisiana State University's Agriculture Center.

After consulting with Laurie Fox, horticultural associate at the Virginia Tech station, he also wrote a concise Web-page advisory for the CEC titled "A Consumer's Guide to Vegetable Garden Safety."

"I've watched soil issues evolve over the last 30 years," Rule said. "Healthy soil is no longer just a concern of farmers. It's good to see typical homeowners becoming interested."

Rule's guide notes that soil testing around New Orleans after the flood did not find elevated levels of heavy metals or salinity. But it acknowledges that some homeowners may choose to do testing of their own.

A homeowner who is concerned about soil contamination, the guide advises, should:
· Consider scraping newly deposited soil from the garden area. If removal from the yard is not possible, make sure the scraped up soil is put on a
plastic tarp or other barrier and securely covered to keep contaminants from escaping.
· Examine earthworms and other underground critters to make sure they are as numerous and robust as they were before the flooding.
· Add organic matter such as peat or compost, which will bind a large number of contaminants and reduce their uptake by plants.
· Add lime to render many metal contaminants unavailable to plants.
· Examine any plants growing in the suspect soil to assess health. If vegetables are planted, visually check the produce for unusual defects.
· Know the source of any bulk soil purchase; do not buy someone else's contaminated soil.
· Use containers for home gardening for a year to give any floodwater contamination time to dissipate.

This article was posted on: February 27, 2006

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