Hard roads, easy fix

BUFFALO, N.D. -- It sounds almost too good to be true -- an enzyme promoted to improve road beds. Bob Johnson, senior adviser/road specialist for Pacific Enzymes Inc., says it works this way. You take those tough-to-maintain, bubbling rural roads...

Improved roads
Once properly treated and packed, road beds with the proper minimum level of clay content become as hard as concrete. A treated roadbed will resist water and stand up to considerable punishment, says Bob Johnson, who sells Permazyme. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)
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BUFFALO, N.D. -- It sounds almost too good to be true -- an enzyme promoted to improve road beds.

Bob Johnson, senior adviser/road specialist for Pacific Enzymes Inc., says it works this way. You take those tough-to-maintain, bubbling rural roads or soft-from-being-wet spots in farm yards that boil up in spring. You work them up and spray with Permazyme 11X, an enzyme -- a "food-based" living bug that "binds" clay particles. You pack the soil to 8 inches and -- almost immediately -- enjoy a fine, rehabilitated road.

Jerry Melvin, a farmer and commodity trading businessman in Buffalo, N.D., in western Cass County, says when he heard about Permazyme, he jumped at the opportunity to host a demonstration of the product at his farmstead. He and his wife, Hattie, and sons, Jonathon and Randy, base their farming and grain trading operations.

The Melvins hosted a group of about 40 people to hear Johnson and others talk about the product and what the product and process can do. Melvin says he is interested in the topic because his own farm yard has huge soft spots and the country roads all over the country are falling apart.

"Our rural roads are shot," Melvin says. "That's happening everywhere."


Bad roads cost farmers money and down time with delayed or destroyed farm equipment and vehicles. Nothing else seems to work, so a product that has a track record elsewhere is worth considering, he says.

Accidental discovery

Johnson spent a week in the Buffalo, N.D., area, preparing for the Melvin demonstrations, which drew several highway officials from North Dakota and Minnesota.

Johnson says the enzyme's use for road improvement is more than 40 years old. It is manufactured by a Las Vegas-based company called International Enzymes, which was created in 1969 by John Bottistoni of Fresno, Calif.

The Bottistonis were hog farmers. They discovered that the feed material they were feeding their hogs would ferment the soil and soil would get "very hard from the foodstuffs." They "recreated the food materials and created an enzyme that would solidify clay."

Bottistoni owns 51 percent of International Enzymes. The family created a separate, companion company called Pacific Enzymes at about the same time. Pacific Enzymes is owned by the family of Beth Henning, now 92, who also owns 49 percent of International Enzymes.

Some of the enzymes were used to put on a sewage lagoon, to help it crust over and prevent smells.

"Their primary goal, initially, was to make an enzyme that would loosen the soil, to allow plants to grab nutrients," he says. The company in fact sells a product called Agzyme for that purpose. Permazyme was designed to do the opposite -- turn the soil harder.


Permazyme has been promoted commercially for road construction since about 1978, but before this, never in North Dakota.

Farmer, road specialist

Johnson found out about the product when he worked for the Glenn County, Calif., road department. He worked there from 1987 to 2008 and retired as road superintendent. He lives in Chico, Calif., north of Sacramento, Calif., and does some part-time farming with 25 purebred Limousin cows.

"I started using Permazyme in 1998, mainly to solidify our clay (road) problem," he says.

The roads were treated and left as a gravel surface, while others were covered with a chip-seal cover.

"We were looking for something to stabilize the clay. We tried everything -- conventional cement, asphalt emulsions, lime treatment," he says.

The clay is so deep that it's like building a road over a marsh, Johnson says. The clay is 20 feet deep in places. The county grows rice, and some of the fields are saturated for eight or nine months a year.

Permazyme seemed to be the ticket. The county applied it to more than 50 miles of road and he never had any failures, Johnson says.


Some of the county's roads needed "full-depth reclamation" -- reusing pavement, base and sub-base with "stabilizers" to rebuild poor roads inexpensively. The county had used various products including lime, foamed liquid asphalt and emulsion mixtures and cement treatments.

Compaction is key, he says. In California they use a "sheeps-foot" roller, or a vibratory pad foot.

Johnson retired from Glenn County in 2008 and immediately went to work for Pacific Enzymes, selling Permazyme throughout the country. (The county still uses the product, using 150 gallons last year at $350 per gallon, a county official confirms.)

Fellow travelers

Also promoting on behalf of Pacific Enzymes is Maureen Clemmons, president of an "innovations" company she calls Transformations. Clemmons holds a doctorate in organization change from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Clemmons describes her business as a "change-management consulting practice" in Winnetka, Calif., in the San Fernando Valley west of Los Angeles. Clemmons' parents are from Belfield and Bismarck in North Dakota and attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. (According to Pepperdine, Clemmons once held a corporate vice president post but left to get her doctorate at Pepperdine's School of Education and Psychology's Organization Change. She is most well-known recently for her efforts to prove that ancient kites were used to build the pyramids, and lift obelisks, even though she is not a scientist in that area.)

Clemmons was invited to UND to speak at a UND Center for Innovation conference in April 2010, when she and Bruce Gjovig, director of the center, talked about local North Dakota needs, including deteriorating rural roads, especially in the western part of the state in association with oil development.

Clemmons knew about Permazyme, and Gjovig arranged for a symposium and demonstration in Grand Forks in October. One of the participants was Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga. This helped induce the North Dakota Petroleum Council to fund a demonstration project of three miles on 84th Street Northwest near Wildrose, N.D., in 2010.

In that connection, Lana Rakow, a UND communications professor and director of the Center for Community Engagement, and a native of Buffalo, connected the project to her hometown, and to the Melvins, as a way to help solve the rural concern about roads.

Dilution factors

Permazyme is a brown liquid. It's made with "feed molasses" and is fermented five to nine days in a process akin to making beer. The end product is 80 percent enzymes and 20 percent sugar. The enzymes are blended with a surfactant to carry the enzyme into the soil.

The concentrate is diluted in water at a ratio of "no less than" 500 parts of water to one part of Permazyme. The water is a "carrier," Johnson says.

"If the soil materials need moisture, more water can be added later," Johnson says.

Some of the ratios in his examples are as many as 1,700 gallons to one or 3,000 gallons in the high desert.

Johnson says he needs to have "a minimum of 8 percent cohesive clay fines" in a materials sample before the process will work. But it can be used on ground asphalt. He says the clay content in roadbeds in the Red River Valley gravel roads is about 25 percent, so that's more than sufficient.

While Johnson recommends applying the material at "50 degrees and rising," he applied the material in October at "50 degrees and falling" in Wildrose.

Wildrose experiment

Johnson says it was predictable that it wouldn't "fully cure," but still did "very well" anyway in a "nasty, nasty cold winter."

This road surface was treated at 10 inches deep and eventually cured in May. He says parts of the road were under water for two weeks.

"I've never experienced a road being under water for that long, and still it performed very well," he says.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation engineers attending the Melvin demonstration say they are interested in the product. They told Johnson they'd like to observe the next time the product is used and would need formal compaction tests. Bowman County, N.D., is going to order 200 gallons for a demonstration project in August, which they'll invite the DOT to observe.

The Wildrose project was a county project. Johnson says some compaction tests exist, but the department is planning to do some field tests specific to the soils in Bowman County.

The Liberty County, Mont., highway department has been using the product for 10 years, where the road superintendent tells him "frost is not a problem at all."

"They look at it as a good alternative," Johnson says. "Once the road is treated, they've never added gravel again to the road and they use the materials that are already in the road. Everyday maintenance of the road dramatically decreases. They may have been maintaining the surface 12 times a year and now they occasionally 'spot-maintain' a road once or twice a year."

There are some scientific tests, but it's not always clear that they apply.

Changing the tests?

Johnson says California State University-Chico is home to the "California Pavement Preservation Center," created in 2006 to help promote the cost-effective preservation of pavement. Scientists there have looked at it.

The California Department of Transportation ("Caltrans") has done "extensive" but sometimes inappropriate tests, Johnson says, in which a core of the treated roadbed is immediately dunked into water without first allowing it curing time. The tests are called the California Bearing Ratio tests and are a standard used globally.

"Having it totally submersed in water does not replicate what happens in the real world," Johnson says.

He says even agency officials acknowledge that those tests "do not reflect the success they've seen in the field," and should be modified.

Johnson thinks a demonstration project in Buffalo could be important.

He calculated the cost to Permazyme-treat the bad spots in the city of Buffalo at about $43,750. That's 125 gallons of the concentrate at $350 each. He thinks it might take two or three days to do the work for the entire town, going 36 feet wide. That's compared with $285,000 for bringing 6 inches of road gravel in -- 19,000 yards, at $15 a yard, delivered.

In the Wildrose project, Johnson says it took 20 gallons of Permazyme to treat a mile of road, 24 feet wide. That's $7,000, if the $350 per gallon cost is applied. Now, the county is going to 30 gallons to include the shoulders, which they're recommending, because of the heavy loads and the pounding on the shoulders.

Pacific Enzymes won't sell the product to a client unless they first are trained, for a $500-per-day training fee.

No product warranty

The product carries no warranty.

If a spot needs attention, you can go in there and "reactivate" by spraying on an even more diluted product an inch deep, allowing the operator to "reshape the road," which then is recompacted and rehardened.

"If you don't reactivate it, the road will be so hard that sparks will come off the road grader," he says. "It continues to get harder, year after year, but not brittle."

The product has a Material Safety Data Sheet government report shows no toxicity.

On black-top surfaces, the company advises renting or somehow acquiring use of a commercial pulverizer, such as the "Asphalt Zipper" machine.

Asphalt Zipper two representatives at the meeting in Buffalo. The Asphalt Zipper was designed in the 1990s, initially to open trenches in roads to allow the laying of pipes. Starting in 2001, the company started selling machines specifically designed for road repair and road maintenance. They range from 24-inches wide on a skid-steer loader 8 feet wide on a large front-end loader. The machines are provided with containment systems, and are provided with aggressive bullet-nosed carbide tips to chew the road surface to desired consistency -- for this purpose, pulverizing. The company has models developed to apply the Permazyme.

Johnson says one of the keys to its success is that it requires "substantial" compaction to "start the reaction with the clay," but just how much compaction is need is hard to define. Johnson says he maximum he's been able to compact a road is 8 inches deep "without excavation."

To do it correctly, engineering testing must be done to get the "curve" on it, to reach "optimum density" on the material.

"Any more than 8 inches, you have to remove the top materials to do deeper compaction," he says.

While generally complimenting road workers in a half-dozen North Dakota counties he's visited, he's noticed that few of them have compactors that penetrate more than 2 inches. Butler Machinery provided him the use of a compactor.

The road surface hardens with time and -- if applied under correct conditions -- it can even be covered with a chip-seal for a truly permanent surface.

All of this sounded interesting to Melvin, but he really is looking for answers.

"Let me put it this way," Melvin says, "If I have a crop out there and I can't get it off the fields because bad roads, I'm done. In government, there is time to solve problems, but I have to solve these problems for my farm."

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