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Wanted: Toxic sites?

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HELENA, Mont. - Damon Schlenske wants your most toxic sites, especially if they're located on or near reservations.

Schlenske is the founder and president of the Helena-based Native American Trading Corporation and Native American Research Center. Among other endeavors, he also runs the Soaring Eagle and Native American Medical firms. Over the years, he's been involved in everything from strengthening trade ties between American Indians and the Orient to helping tribes build and run their own assisted-living centers.

Now Schlenske, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, is embarking on a new project - helping reservations clean up pollution through the use of glow-discharge plasma technology, which involves forcing jolts of electricity through tainted water to separate and/or destroy organic and inorganic contaminants.

Working with researchers around the country, Schlenske hopes to soon demonstrate the technology's effectiveness in the field. Key potential targets include the Zortman-Landusky mine complex in eastern Montana, where the adjacent Fort Belknap Tribes are pushing for extensive clean-up measures, and scores of other similar sites around the country that are laden with mine wastes and other toxic chemicals.

"This is not just for Montana," Schlenske says. It can be used any place that is "suffering from the outfalls of American industry."

Irving Backman, a Massachusetts consultant who holds North American marketing rights to the so-called Torch technology, says glow-discharge plasma treatment was originally developed about 15 years ago at research centers in the former Soviet Union. The "activation" process entails placing electrodes into units of polluted water and pulsing measured amounts of electricity into it for fractions of a second.

"You can see it," Backman says. "It's like blue lightning bolts in there. That pulsing of the molecules breaks up the structure of the water itself. You destroy the organics, but you don't destroy the inorganics. They remain as a type of sludge. But even if it's toxic, the sludge is easier to dispose of. The water itself will be pure."

"Activated water is the thing of the future," adds Schlenske. "I don't believe the Torch system is a panacea, but it's a workable tool. The process is solid. It does what it says it's going to do."

After the political breakup of the Soviet Union, Backman says Russian scientists working on the technology soon found their funding disappear. Some of the technicians later teamed up to form Water Works Global Inc., a Netherlands-based research, development and marketing firm that is also incorporated in the United States.

In recent years, Backman says, the technology has advanced to the point where glow-discharge reactors can be built to fit projects of all sizes. For example, he says, a mobile unit that fits onto the back of a pickup truck can treat approximately 100,000 gallons of tainted water a day, while a unit that can be hauled by a semi-truck has about a million-gallon-a-day capacity.

The technology, Backman and Schlenske predict, could eventually be used for treatment in municipal water systems, at all types of settlement and holding ponds, and at mining leach sites, where cyanide is often used to separate precious metals like gold from surrounding ore.

"The heavier the metals, the better it works," Backman explains.

Even better, Backman and Schlenske say, the Torch system can potentially reduce the use of cyanide in mining applications because the activated water could be used instead to separate the targeted metals.

"If we can open up the mining business even in a small way, everyone will benefit," Schlenske says. He adds, however, that one of the first goals should be addressing mining and other industrial pollution that already exists, especially on reservations.

Schlenske, 53, is also involved in other economic-development ventures, including efforts to develop a new, nutritional sports drink and helping tribes across the nation develop distinctive "trading marts" to showcase local Indian-made artwork and merchandise. In the past, he's toiled as an urban firefighter, and as an adjunct Native American studies professor at Helena's Carroll College. He's been trained as a nutrition counselor and holds a master's degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Alabama.

"It turns out that Indian tribes are taking it in the shorts when it comes to pollution," he says. "Almost nothing is happening in Indian country about clean up. Tribes have to take the lead in cleaning up these situations. If we're going to wait for the federal government to hand-feed us, it's going to backfire."

As a federally certified minority businessman, Schlenske says he can "deal directly" with the needs of tribes and their homelands.

Craig French, who helps oversee Superfund restoration sites for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says he's aware of the glow-discharge plasma technology.

"I like the idea of it," says French, who has a background in chemistry. "On its face value, it makes sense to me that it would work." French adds, however, that he has not seen any cost-analysis when it comes to comparing glow-discharge to techniques already being used to treat contaminated water.

Schlenske and Backman maintain the Torch system is extremely cost-effective, in part because it can deal with both inorganic and organic compounds in one sweep, instead of subjecting the water to several types of processing. They also say many current methods being used to treat polluted water don't work, which ends up perpetuating the problems.

Schlenske and Backman say there are also other promising possibilities for the technology, including using its activated water in cosmetics, as a way to kill harmful mosquito larvae, and even as a possible replacement for chlorine in swimming pools and other toxic disinfectants. Backman says the Canadian paper industry is looking at glow-discharge plasma as a way to reduce or even eliminate bleaching, now a major source of pollution.

"We're excited about the Torch technology," Backman says. "We think it can do some good."

Backman, Schlenske and others gathered in Massachusetts in April to participate in additional live testing of the system. The backers say they're also working with various government agencies to help move the product from the testing stage to commercial viability. According to Backman, five U.S. patents on the system are pending.

"This technology is real, and we want to get it out in the marketplace to show what it can do," he adds. "We want to get models out to show they can meet the need."

For more information about the technology or to schedule a demonstration, Schlenske can be reached at (406) 442-1222 or (800) 318-8153. Backman, head of Backman and Associates in Newton Centre, Mass., can be contacted at (617) 969-2044 or (800) 462-2193.