Bemidji, Minn. — Nearly all the peat mined in Minnesota is of the garden variety. Home gardeners use it to enrich soil. You can buy a bag of the stuff at a local greenhouse for about 25 cents a pound. But Steve Spigarelli, an environmental studies professor at Bemidji State University, says that's only a fraction of the true value of peat.
Spigarelli and other researchers at BSU have been studying the qualities of peat since the 1970s. They've been looking for ways to add value to the substance. And they've reached some interesting conclusions.
"I would say, total, I would expect we could get at least $30 or $40 a pound for the products that I'm talking about, which is 100 times better than we're doing now," said Spigarelli.
BSU researchers have found ways to extract at least five products from common peat. Most recently, they've isolated what are known as biostimulants. Those are specific chemicals in peat that accelerate the growth of certain plants.
They've also developed a way to extract wax from peat. The wax would be suitable for thousands of industrial uses, from candles to cosmetics. And the researchers say they've come up with a peat product that purifies water. They say it could be used in septic systems or to remove dangerous contaminants from large volumes of polluted water.
Spigarelli says a variety of petroleum-based products could potentially be replaced with peat-based products. They all could be produced inexpensively at a single plant. He says there's plenty of peat available to harvest while still protecting Minnesota's sensitive wetlands environment. One specialized manufacturing could produce millions of dollars worth of products.
So, if peat is so valuable, why isn't all this being done? Spigarelli says the problem is, while there's great interest in the scientific community, the idea has yet to catch on in the private sector.
"It's very difficult to get industry to commit," Spigarelli said. "And we've not been able to find anybody who's willing to fund that pilot plant yet. That has to be the first step before you can actually develop a market for your products."
Horticultural, or garden variety peat production in Minnesota is a $10 million dollar industry. To get at the peat, companies drain the wetland and remove the top layer of vegetation. Then machines are used to either shave or vacuum the peat. Companies harvest only an inch or two of peat each year. They'll spend decades mining the same small plot. They're required to restore it when they're done.
The thought of digging up Minnesota's wetlands makes environmentalists cringe. But researchers at the University of Minnesota, Duluth have come up with ways to lessen the environmental impacts of peat mining. Kurt Johnson is with the U's Natural Resources and Research Institute. Johnson says peat mining doesn't cause permenant damage.
"What the public perception is sometimes, is that this is a large, just a big hole that's left there, which is actually not the case," said Johnson. "The research has shown that you can restore these areas back to functional wetlands, and actually to the same type of peatland as they once were."
There may be a bright future for high-end use of Minnesota's peat resource. But it's probably a long way off. Minnesota has millions of acres of peatlands. Companies have permits to dig on only about 3,000 of those acres. Historically, the Department of Natural Resources has issued peat mining permits.
But in the early 1990s, the federal government passed laws protecting wetlands. That means companies that want to harvest peat must now meet stringent requirements set by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
One Canadian company applied six years ago for a permit to harvest peat from the Pine Island Bog in Koochiching County. They're still waiting for approval. Few companies are willing to jump through those hoops. Tom Malterer directs the peat program at the Natural Resources and Research Institute. He says over-regulation of peat is frustrating county officials who are desperate for economic development.
I really do believe, at some point in time, that peat could be the iron mining industry of the future in places like Aitkin County.
"For example, in Koochiching County, 98 percent of the original wetlands are still wetlands," Malterer said. "And they have over a million acres of peatlands out of two million acres of total county land. It's perplexing to people there to think that they couldn't use their resource."
DNR officials say the peat mining project that's pending in Koochiching County involves 800 acres that would be harvested over the next 30 to 50 years. That project's permit is nearing approval. Julie Jordan works at the DNR office in Hibbing. Jordan says the cumbersome federal regulations have scared off peat companies. She says that could change when the Pine Island Bog project is finally approved.
"I know that many of our operators are looking at diversifying, getting out of even horticultural peat and using their horticultural grade peat for some of these other value added products, you might say," said Jordan. "But I don't want to make a prediction that this industry is going to take off again in the near future here."
Jordan says one thing that may hold down the peat industry in Minnesota is competition. Most of the peat sold in the U.S. comes from Canada.
Still, there's optimism in peat-rich counties in northern Minnesota. Dave Hasskamp directs a non-profit economic development agency in Aitkin County. Hasskamp has been interested in the economic potential of peat since the 1980s. He predicts that one day, high-value peat production will be the economic backbone of counties that are now viewed as mostly swamplands.
"I really do believe, at some point in time, that peat could be the iron mining industry of the future in places like Aitkin County," said Hasskamp. "I really believe that."
Hasskamp says for that to happen, federal laws will have to make exceptions for wet regions like northern Minnesota. Also, he says there needs to be someone at the state government level willing to champion peat as an economic resource. And, most importantly, it will take money.
"We don't have enough cash to do the research that's needed," Hasskamp said. "And the universities have started that, but they too are strapped for cash. And there needs to be a private sector involvement in this. ... But you know, there's not a lot of people anxious at this moment to invest in it. And so the peat that is harvested is being used as a soil amenity for potting plants. That's not the best use for it."
Peat is considered a renewable resource. But that's a relative concept. It's growth is measured in inches per century. Minnesota's peatlands have been about 6,000 years in the making. They function as a natural water filter and prevent flooding. Some peat bogs support rare plants and animals.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing peat industry enthusiasts may be convincing the public that it's a good idea to dig it up.