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The Environmental Pyramid

• November 04, 2008 • 8:35 PM

A respected geochemical engineer proposes a new way to deal with toxic waste: Make it into shrines that people can work, shop and even live on.

Oh, people generally consider me slightly crazy,” admits geochemical engineering pioneer R.D. Schuiling over the phone from his home in Utrecht, Netherlands, as his deliberate, Dutch-tinged baritone breaks into a gruff chuckle.

“But they also have to say I have some intriguing ideas.”

His latest idea, spelled out earlier this year in the International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, certainly falls into the “intriguing” category. The 76-year-old Schuiling, now working as a private researcher after more than 25 years as a professor of geochemistry at Utrecht University, argues that human beings should again erect Egyptian-style pyramids around the world on a massive scale. But these pyramids would be remarkable in two respects: People could live in them, and they would be constructed from bricks of solidified toxic waste.

The “environmental pyramid,” as Schuiling envisages it, would be equal parts potent symbol and pragmatic solution. In the current practice, solid toxic wastes are dumped into lined landfills, which are covered with isolating foils and soils and permanently monitored for leaks and runoff. It is in this “mobile phase,” when once-solid waste comes into contact with groundwater, that dangerous concentrations of toxic compounds can enter the environment. As Schuiling writes in his paper: “Every earth scientist knows that all the earth materials will sooner or later return to the geochemical cycle. In the case of isolated waste deposits, this return is likely to occur at some unknown moment in the near future, and it will catch us unawares. Each underground toxic waste deposit, hidden from view, will be a time bomb, which will blow off unexpectedly. It is preferable to deal with the problem in a more open and explicit way.”

And what’s more explicit than a gigantic pyramid?

“I could have made it any form,” says Schuiling, who has devoted his career to developing the relatively nascent field of geochemical engineering, which aims to use natural processes to solve various environmental and civil engineering problems in cost-effective ways. He began his postdoctoral career as an exploration geologist in Turkey and served as a NATO research fellow at Princeton and has studied mines from India to Brazil to the Ukraine.

“The pyramid form puts it in people’s minds,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that will stand for thousands of years.”

Contrary to our modern vision of thousands of ancient workers toiling over lathes and pulleys to drag gigantic boulders into place, the construction phase for these modern pyramids, Schuiling says, would be “fairly simple.” It would begin with the excavation of a shallow pit, a few meters deep, its bottom covered by an impermeable liner. A square base of reinforced concrete would be erected in the center of the pit, separated from the outer perimeter by a water-filled moat to catch rainwater; the base would prevent direct contact between the waste and the water. “This would be your foundation,” Schuiling says. “There’s no toxic waste in the base of concrete.”

pyramidInstead, the toxic wastes would be immobilized as building blocks, mixed with cement and formed into monolithic bricks. “These would be huge bricks,” Schuiling says. “Two meters long, one meter wide, half a meter high.” Certain toxic wastes that can’t be immobilized in concrete or would negatively impact the structure’s strength or stability because they deteriorate could not be used. But many kinds of toxic, heavy-metal residues would work. “Metal wastes, sludge, fly ashes (from the combustion of coal), slags (a byproduct of smelting ore) … that kind of thing would be quite easy to incorporate into concrete,” he says.

The binding strength of the contaminants could be increased, Schuiling believes, by using certain additives in the concrete, which would help absorb the toxic compounds. He is especially fond of Bauxsol, a product made from the red mud residues of refineries that turn bauxite into aluminum; Bauxsol is compatible with cement and has a high capacity to bind metal and neutralize acid. As an added bonus, the color of the blocks would be a deep, aesthetically pleasing red.

Once formed, the bricks would be set on top of the concrete base; a next row of blocks would be laid over the first, shifted slightly toward the center. “You just shift the ends of the concrete slabs a little bit, get a little slope,” Schuiling explains, “just like the Egyptians did, and (the pyramids they built are) still standing.” Or, in another method of construction, the toxic wastes could be mixed with cement on-site and poured in layers, which would eliminate the spaces between individual bricks.

Rainwater would flow directly from the sides of the pyramid (coated with a water-repellent synthetic material) into the surrounding canal or moat; however, this ditch would still not be contaminated because the immobilized material in the bricks of the pyramid would have to conform to government-regulated leaching standards. As Schuiling points out in his paper, one advantage of the above-ground storage solution is that contact with water would be limited to rainy periods. “Under Dutch climatic conditions, with an estimated excess of rainfall over evaporation of 30 centimeters a year, no more than approximately 3,000 cubic meters of runoff water annually is expected for a surface area of 10,000 square meters,” he writes. An Olympic swimming pool holds about six times as much water.

The benefits of this approach, according to Schuiling, are legion. The pyramids would not require permanent monitoring or treatment, the way landfills do now, and would significantly reduce maintenance costs. He points to the still-intact evidence of Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids and contrasts that with the landfill’s lifespan of a few decades before waste deposits commonly begin to leak.

Then, of course, there’s the educational value. Schuiling imagines the first of these pyramids as tourist attractions, where reassuring displays could be offered to the public; he sees plants sprouting and fish swimming in the surrounding ditch, as they also help serve as a natural bio-monitoring system. The south wall (if the pyramid is located in the Northern Hemisphere) could be covered with solar panels to help light the structure; the other walls could be decorated by famous artists.

Even though the notion of toxic waste as pyramid sounds a bit fanciful, Schuiling isn’t stopping there; he also wants people to move in, to shop and to work in his environmental pyramids. He envisages a terrace on top of the pyramid, maybe with a bar-restaurant, reached via an elevator inside the structure. (Schuiling notes that it “can be an advantage to construct the elevator shaft already before the start of the building of the pyramid. While the pyramid is under construction, this elevator can also serve to lift the concrete slabs to the required level.”)

Citing architectural scholarship on modern dwelling mounds, Schuiling suggests that apartments or offices could be built into the outer walls of the pyramid, not unlike the guest rooms lining the exterior of the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. “The initial reaction of prospective inhabitants will be to reject the idea of living on a mountain of waste,” he writes in his paper. “It will take some re-education to show that … they will in fact live in the safest location on Earth as far as potential pollution is concerned.”

Over the phone, Schuiling admits he’s being “a little provocative” when he suggests people live atop his toxic-waste pyramids. Despite the obvious novelty, a stubborn allegiance to pragmatism runs through Schuiling’s discussion of his idea, which, true to his eminent stature in the gritty field of geochemical engineering, is nearly as concerned with saving costs as saving the world. He points out that turning waste-storage sites into any kind of retail or living space would make them much more cost-effective than the current landfills. And he also makes the change in storage strategy sound inevitable.

“We know by now that many of these toxic landfills, even if they are lined and isolated, they start to leak at some moment,” he says. “Nobody notices at the time it’s happening. Why cover it? Why not make it visible? This is a fairly simple and sensible way of doing it. And this will be less expensive than the problems that will come up.”

Pyramids built from concretized waste isn’t the first provocative idea to spring from Schuiling’s lab. Earlier this year, he published a paper arguing that common rocks, dolomite or limestone, could help control lava flows across the globe because their endothermic reaction with hot lava cools the volcanic liquid, making it far more quick to solidify. In the early 1990s, as fears of global warming and melting polar ice caps began leading to widespread worries about rising sea levels, Schuiling joined with Jan Nieuwenhuis, an international authority on soil mechanics from Delft, to advocate a return to their ancestors’ defense against the sea, with a modern twist: lifting the country’s 220-mile coastline, cost-effectively, by injecting huge amounts of sulfuric acid into the limestone beneath the Netherlands’ topsoil. Nieuwenhuis told the International Herald Tribune the project was like “trying to make scientific sense out of a crazy brain wave,” but the National Science Foundation and Ministry of Public Works decided to fund the first stages of the project. Schuiling is currently at the forefront of the worldwide effort to sequester carbon dioxide through the mining and crushing of large quantities of the common mineral olivine.

Schuiling says his paper has been “fairly enthusiastically received” by colleagues and is hopeful that merely publishing the idea will get people thinking seriously about the need to shift waste storage and disposal away from landfills. “We need to convince people — to show them — that this is really a part of your environment, and it’s safe,” he says. “Waste is something you have to consider, and there are ways to make it useful instead.”

Not all of his colleagues in the geochemical sciences are convinced, however, that storing toxic waste above ground represents a step forward for the safety of humanity.

“It’s an interesting idea; it’s a profound statement,” says Robert Donahue, director of the Applied Environmental Geochemistry Research Facility at the University of Alberta in Canada. “But you’re just upping the risk factors. When toxic waste is underground, it’s isolated from the atmosphere and the environment. Landfills are engineered facilities where we can control the groundwater, harvest the gases and actively monitor the waste.”

Schuiling is realistic enough to know he won’t soon see environmental pyramids springing up in his neighborhood; his ancestors may have devised novel ways to reclaim the land from the sea, but Schuiling insists his modern compatriots are a skeptical, stubborn sort, despite Holland’s reputation for offbeat ideas. “We Dutchmen can be very shy of innovation,” he says slyly, then chuckles. “Sometimes I think these revolutionary ideas, if they would come from Japan or from the United States, people would accept it. But coming from a Dutchman …”

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Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

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