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At the derailment site, scientists monitor the cleanup of nitrogen fertilizer with a unique alfalfa.

Alfalfa Plants Vacuum Up Fertilizer Spill

By Don Comis
April 14, 1999

U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers grew alfalfa to clean up a spill of 45,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer resulting from a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailment near Bordulac, N. D., on Feb. 20, 1989.

In the past three years, deep-rooted alfalfa specially bred to take in all its nitrogen from soil and water removed excess nitrate from the soil and significantly improved groundwater quality at the 7-acre spill site. Regular alfalfa obtains most of its nitrogen from the air.

Plant physiologist Carroll P. Vance with USDA's Agricultural Research Service in St. Paul, Minn., helped develop the "Ineffective Agate" alfalfa. Vance is at the ARS Plant Science Research Unit at St. Paul.

Unlike regular alfalfa, Ineffective Agate cannot use nitrogen from the air. But it takes up 30 to 40 percent more nitrogen from soil and water than regular alfalfa.

Vance, ARS soil scientist Michael P. Russelle and ARS geneticist JoAnn F.S. Lamb worked on the groundwater cleanup project with North Dakota State University's Carrington Research and Extension Center and the environmental firm Braun Intertec Corp. under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

Last year, the cleanup crew pumped out nearly 690,000 gallons of high-nitrate groundwater and irrigated the alfalfa with it. They harvested the alfalfa four times, removing 370 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

As part of its agreement, ARS recently issued a final report on the research part of the clean-up project to CPR and Braun Intertec.

ARS scientists are distributing small amounts of Ineffective Agate seed to other researchers. Lamb has used this seed to incorporate the Ineffective Agate trait into several lines of alfalfa adapted to various regions of the country.

An article on the cleanup appears in the April issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine. The story is also on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Carroll P. Vance, ARS Plant Science Research Unit, St. Paul, Minn., phone (612) 625-5715, fax (651) 649-5058,

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