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Cincinnati Parks invests $1.1 million in a carbon-negative biochar project

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Officials say Mt. Air Forest will likely be the home for Cincinnati's first biochar production site.

Crystal Courtney from Cincinnati Parks Division of Natural Resources says much of the plant waste from the city's parks is underutilized, and often left to lay in piles around Cincinnati's natural areas. That's why the Cincinnati Parks Board and Great Parks of Hamilton County are directing grant funds from Bloomberg Philanthropies toward a new biochar production facility.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance created by burning plant waste and converting it into a long-lasting soil additive that can promote the growth of new trees.

The investment will create a biochar facility managed by Cincinnati Parks and Carbon Harvest LLC, a local biochar and soil improvement company founded by Sam Dunlap in 2021.

Dunlap says biochar can be added to soil to keep nutrients in the ground for much longer than regular soil or mulch. This can help plants perform photosynthesis more efficiently, allowing them to capture more carbon, making cleaner air.

Biochar is not new

While modern techniques have been developed in recent years, Dunlap says a version of biochar has existed for a long time, and was used by Indigenous people in the Amazon to keep the soil fertile for hundreds of years.

"Typically tropical soil in a rainy environment like that is very hard to keep nutrients in the soil, and if an area's been cleared for agriculture, it becomes depleted of nutrients very quickly," Dunlap said. "These particular soils that were discovered [in the Amazon] were very dark, black and extremely nutrient-laden, and what was discovered was that they were made that way through the addition of charcoal."

The $1.1 investment will launch a small pilot production facility that can fit inside a local park. Waste from local parks will go to the facility to be burned and turned into biochar.

It's a relatively simple process, but Courtney from the park board says Cincinnati will have one of the first dedicated biochar production facilities in the country. It's expected to be a self-sustaining project.

"Our goal is to produce enough biochar for city use for the 3,000-plus trees we're looking to plant each year. Plus, enough to sell to generate revenue to pay for the projects," Courtney said.

The parks board anticipates demand for biochar from landscape companies and other businesses in the Cincinnati area and beyond for its effectiveness. Ideally, the board sees the production site as a potential plus for local parks and a way to generate funds to put back into the community.

While a location for the facility hasn't been finalized, both Dunlap and Courtney say Mt. Air Forest will likely be the home for Cincinnati's first biochar production site.

Updated: November 13, 2023 at 4:06 PM EST
As of July 2023, the city's Warder Nursery is being considered as the project site.
Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.