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Task force working to save poisoned Auburn University landmark trees

From Vivian Kuo, CNN
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Auburn tree truce?
  • Specialists are working to remove poisoned soil around the 130-year-old trees
  • Agronomists say the poison is so potent the trees have little to no chance of surviving
  • Auburn official: "Even if we're holding on to a 1% hope, we will do all we can"
  • Auburn police have charged a man in the poisoning

(CNN) -- Work to replace heavily poisoned soil choking the life from two beloved oak trees at Auburn University continued for a second day Tuesday, according to Mike Clardy, the school's director of communications.

"We've taken out as much of the poisoned soil as we can at this point," he said. "We're using high-pressure air and high-pressure water to remove it."

Once the poisoned soil is removed, the university's task force -- made up of horticulturists, agronomists and engineers -- will then put in clean soil mixed with activated charcoal. "The charcoal will hopefully pull away any herbicide remaining in the soil," Clardy said.

Auburn police arrested Harvey Updyke Jr., 62, on Thursday for allegedly dousing the landmark trees with herbicide so potent that agronomists said the two 130-year-old trees on Toomer's Corner have little to no chance of survival.

Updyke has been charged with one count of criminal mischief and has been released on $50,000 bond. "We are continuing to wrap up our investigation and tie up some loose ends," Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said. "There is nothing to indicate that he had a partner."

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Updyke has cycled through two court-appointed lawyers and is likely to move through a third. Jerry M. Blevins said Tuesday he was retained on the matter last week but has now filed a motion to withdraw from the case.

Blevins declined to elaborate on why he wanted to be released, saying only there were "some conflicts between me and Mr. Updyke."

Updyke's two previous court-appointed attorneys were allowed to withdraw because of their affiliations with Auburn University.

Authorities first learned of the herbicide after a caller who identified himself as "Al from Dadeville" phoned into a Birmingham, Alabama, radio talk show, saying he had poisoned the renowned oaks after Auburn won a contentious November football game against the University of Alabama. "Al" ended the call with "Roll Damn Tide," a battle cry for the University of Alabama.

Fans typically gather around the trees after victories, draping them with toilet paper. Clardy said it's not just Auburn supporters who have rallied around the tree, however. "We've had hundreds of calls of encouragement and suggestions from other schools in the SEC, including from the University of Alabama," he said, referring to the Southeastern Conference, which includes Auburn and the University of Alabama.

Tuesday, a Facebook page called "Tide for Toomer's" said $39,000 had been raised in support of the historic trees. "It's been really nice to see fans from the University of Alabama stepping out," Clardy said. "We're certainly very appreciative of all the support."

The next step, Clardy said, is to keep an eye out for a change of weather. "Live oaks put out leaves in the spring. It could be as early as April that we would see some of the effects."

"We still believe that the level of herbicide that we found in the soil is more than sufficient to kill these trees. But even if we're holding on to a 1% hope, we will do all we can to keep them alive."