In 1976, some 25,000 drums of pesticide-manufacturing residue were buried by the state in the desert area of Alkali Lake in southeastern Oregon. When his protests against plans to do this failed, George Ward decided to give up his work as a structural engineer and turn to environmental research instead. Now, his research may lead to a solution to the problem of chemical-waste disposal.

"My little friends the bugs will do it," says Ward, head of George D. Ward & Associates of Portland. Ward is raising microorganisms that detoxify chemical wastes.

"We create a small piece of earth that's as characteristic of nature as we can make it, and we keep it under control," Ward says of his experiments, conducted under a plastic bubble at the Oregon Graduate Center in Beaverton. "We use the upper levels of topsoil because that's where all the bacteriological action is."

Bacteria offer a low-cost, safe solution to the problem, Ward says. A solution that is more cost-effective and practical than mechanical or chemical solutions. His research is concentrated on detoxifying 2, 4, 6-trichlorophenol, a chemical used in a number of herbicides. His bacteria won't work on all chemicals, but Ward says that his research will be applicable to much of "the industrial omelette of organic chemicals that are causing problems."

In addition to the chemical waste project, Ward is investigating ways to sterilize septic-tank sludge, which he says has potential as a commercial fertilizer.He is also exploring ways to prevent ash erosion near Mt. St. Helens. Ward and his researchers hope to incorporate work with sludge and tree farming to rehabilitate the ash-laden area around the volcano.