Tucked away in a small lab in Fort St. John, molds and microbes grow thick in small glass flasks and plastic Petri dishes, and lichen float in jars of jelly.
They’re the experiments of a small team of scientists bringing the next generation of pollution eaters and seed starters to contaminated industrial sites and ecosystems across North America.
“The bread and butter of the company right now is cleaning up pollution. The good thing is, there's a lot of microbes that can do that,” says Timothy Repas, president of Fixed Earth Innovations.
“We work with bacteria all the way through to molds and fungus. Some molds are better at eating oils. For some of our tougher pollutants like the old firefighting foams, the ‘forever chemicals’ as you often see them referred to, bacteria tend to be the ones that are better.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Repas moved to Canada 11 years ago to complete his master’s degree in biology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He came north to Fort St. John almost nine years ago, where the work was in environmental consulting.
Much of the science being done today at the lab was the basis of his university studies. And it was later informed by his work cleaning up industrial pollution by excavation: Why not just leave it in the ground and let science do the heavy lifting?
“It’s challenging,” Repas says. “What my original master’s work was, was looking for these microbes that live in symbiosis with plants in difficult places, and actually help them survive in really challenging places like the oil well at 60 years old — How do you begin to bring it back to life?”
So he began piloting experiments with local companies, opening the Fixed Earth lab in December 2019. But the company’s first major breakthrough came in 2021 at an old tannery site in northern Michigan destroyed in a fire. Almost a decade later, the nearby river was still foaming up with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from the foams used to fight the fire, Repas explained.
Those substances are notoriously toxic and near impossible to break down because of their chemical bonds. But Repas and his team have developed microbes with the hunger to break down the so-called “forever chemicals.”
“Our usual mantra is to get out into the real world to see if it works. It took a long time to convince people it would work,” he says. “We got laughed off the phone a whole bunch because you're not supposed to be able to break these things down. They’re forever chemicals. And so Michigan was actually the first one to say let’s try it.”
“We saw some really great results, like a 64% drop in two weeks. Now we're back there and we're doing more work on that site.”
Today, the company is using its microbes to clean up military sites in Wisconsin, old gas stations and commercial properties in Fort St. John, and to improve the health of trees on roadsides in Vancouver.
Its main focus though is targeting sites contaminated with those PFAS chemicals. Repas estimates some 57,000 such sites in the U.S. alone, from airports and military/industry sites, to landfills, wastewater plants, and compost heaps. PFAS is commonly found in everything from burger wrappers, plastic food packaging, and paper towel, he says.
“That problem is huge and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Repas says. “A lot of the groundwork for this is in the U.S., but I think it'll come to Canada in time.”
There are practical applications in Northeast B.C. under experiment too, particularly for oil and gas well site reclamation. Up until a couple years ago, seeding a site with grass and clover was the norm.
“Of course, that's not accepted anymore, as it really shouldn't be, because those sites take forever to become forest again,” says Repas, noting standards have shifted to planting native species, though that presents its own challenges. Seed can be hard to find and hard to grow well.
“We're hoping by using the microbes we can solve the hard-to-get part by using less [seed] because it grows better. So we don't need five pounds of fireweed seed to do the site, maybe we only need half a pound, then we can get 10 times more sites done with the same amount of seed,” he says.
“That’s the hope. Early results have been looking really good. We need a few more growing seasons to know for sure this is working.”
Microbes are part of the company’s puzzle, which collaborates with other scientists who have developed ways to get oxygen and other nutrients into the ground more quickly for the microbes, or who are developing specialized charcoals that create a home for them to flourish and do their job.
“Even if a microbe works super well and you put it into a bad condition, it doesn't work,” Repas says. “It's just bringing these technologies into one solution. All of a sudden you went from cleaning up hydrocarbons in a decade to, we’ve had sites in as short as 15 days that, all of a sudden, you're getting rid of a substantial amount of pollution.”
“Not all sites are that quick,” he adds. “But we can realistically talk months instead of years. It's been a lot of collaboration. Even in Fort St. John, there's a surprising number of people who have things that help.”
With three full-time scientists including himself at the lab, Repas hopes to grow the company. He’s supported by a co-founding vice-president, Daniel Lanman in Saskatoon, and financial executive Andrea Forrest in Vernon, B.C. This past summer, the lab hosted two summer students, and a third will be completing their graduating capstone project there this year.
While Fort St. John may be an unlikely place for a bio-tech startup, there are local science careers to be had here, Repas says.
“It's been kind of a roller coaster, actually,” he says, “to be working on some of these sites and in meetings here in this little office in Fort St. John and all of the sudden the Air Force calls… It’s a little surreal sometimes.”
“The north in general presents a lot of opportunity, just all around. If you want to be outside, it's a great place to be. If you want to work, it's a great place to be,” he adds.
“There's actually a lot of great people around town. We've had so many people supportive of what we do, even our business partners in town are like, ‘What do you need? This is cool. This is different.’
“I don't think we would have found that anywhere else.”