Managing Mine-Scarred Lands

Geoff Siemering
Extension Soil Science Outreach Specialist
Department of Soil Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Total Time: 7:05

0:14 – Wisconsin’s mining history
1:26 – Why are lead and zinc problems?
2:43 – Effects on gardens and crops
3:39 – What we can do about it
5:00 – New resources for finding contaminated areas
6:54 – Lead out



Adam Wigger: “Managing Mines Scarred Lands.” We’re talking today with Geoff Siemering, Extension Soil Science Outreach Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Soil Science and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger. Geoff, we’re the Badger State, we are known for mining historically, what does that mean for the land today?

Geoff Siemering: So yeah, in southwestern Wisconsin, that’s where the term Badger State comes from – so mining has been around for quite a while since like 1820’s is when some of the first larger scale mines were developed and the badger term comes what those were that actually the miners who would burrow into the side of the hillsides to mine lead. That was the largest source of lead in the United States up until about the beginning early part of the Civil War. Some people have said most of the bullets fired in the civil war were made with lead out of Wisconsin. So what that means for us today is even though that mining history is well-known in that region, people out there don’t realize is that the lead hasn’t gone away. The metals stay there. So all the sites that have been mined, a lot of times, you do still find soil contamination in that area because really environmental and safety controls were not really well developed back in 1820 as you know through the 1920s there was still these pictures of these guys coming off the mines and their skin is is black and it’s from lead dust. There were there There’ve been comments that you know there there were not a lot of old timers in that region.

Adam Wigger: So why are lead – and I also read it in your learning store publication that you and some other experts put out – zinc is also a problem. So why are led and zinc problems?

Geoff Siemering: So lead is a problem. I think you know that’s much more in the news these days with the lead service lines in Milwaukee and lead contamination in soil in urban areas due to lead paint. It’s been pointed out that I found one of the few, you know, real connections between small towns in rural southwestern Wisconsin and Milwaukee and that’s led contamination led is a neurotoxin and there is no known safe level of lead, so any amount is actually considered bad. So that’s that’s why lead is a concern out there. Zinc is also a concern out there there. Initially there were lead mines and then when refining processes became a little better, Zinc was the metal that was then extracted zinc is actually not a human health concern. We have that in our vitamins and we do need some zinc. It’s really much more of a problem for plants. It’s very toxic for plants. And the problem is now that a lot of the locations of these mines and processing areas have kind of been forgotten, usually people in the local towns will know their minds used to be over in that part. People kind of forgotten or don’t realize that those metals are still present they haven’t gone away. And sometimes you find people trying to grow crops in these areas.

Adam Wigger: Yeah, so what does that mean for gardens or crops?

Geoff Siemering: So for gardens or crops, mostly you know it doesn’t grow. Like you you’ll plant the seed and your corn comes up and then it turns purple and then it doesn’t really grow much beyond that -don’t get much out of it. So you know the areas with a lot of zinc contamination, you know, you’re never gonna get ears of corn out of it. You can get soybean and so you don’t want to be eating that stuff because I mean some zinc is taken up. There is also some lead taken up it’s not preferentially taken up by the plants and kind of the concern would be like well what if you’re grazing animals on that patch or you’re harvesting for silage for, you know, just your family herd. Those animals are constantly being fed perhaps feed that’s elevated in lead. You really want to avoid let it at all costs the zinc it’s pretty obvious it’s going to kill your plants. Well everyone is aware of the mining history out there. People are really unaware of the impacts that that historic mining still has.

Adam Wigger: Yes. So what can we do about that – if we’re suspicious of possible contaminants being in the soil is there someone we can contact, somewhere we can send the soil?

Geoff Siemering: So the best person to contact would actually probably your county Extension agent. They can help you with that. There are some rules that DNR has that you kind of want to be careful of. So yeah the best place to go is to talk to your county Extension agent and they can help you if you’ve any questions in that area. The state soils lab does test soil homeowners for lead, they can do zinc. But for most part if your plants are turning yellow and dying it’s probably zinc – so they can’t test it but it’s usually pretty obvious the best thing to do especially if you’re a farmer out there and you’re growing crops and you’re noticing this – don’t farm that area. The best thing to do would be don’t plow it. Leave it alone. They tend not to be really large areas. They tend to be more and they’ll tend to be closer in the towns really the best thing to do would be to leave it alone. Talk to your Extension agent they can help you figure that out there might be an option to put that land in conservation easement, say we might be I’ll get you a little bit of revenue for that maybe increase the pollinator numbers in your area and then protect human health as well because really the problem is if you’re running if like runoff is pushing this soil after you’ve plowed it off your site and into local creeks or drainage area, around the towns.

Adam Wigger: You and your department have a new report coming out in the next couple of months, can you talk about that at all?

Geoff Siemering: Sure. So we have one Extension publication out now that’s geared towards individuals, homeowners on how to manage mine-scarred land. And that’s a general, more general interest publication. It does have information on you know again like we talked about what to do if you suspect you might have historic mine-scarred land on your property. Wait a second when coming out shortly and it’s gonna be a more of it in-depth compendium of maps throughout all of southwestern Wisconsin, the counties where historic mines were present. And it’s an overlay of the historic mine features on to current land use maps. So actually you can look it up and you’d be able to see least in the paper copy approximately where you live and whether you’re in proximity to some of these historic mine features those same maps are also available via the snap maps program through the snap plus nutrient management web portal more that’s more useful for farmers because they’re going to be really familiar with that system. Those GIS layers are all present within that system. So you can get really detailed and zoom in really close on on where those historic mine features are. The Geologic Survey, the Wisconsin geologic and Natural History Survey, did a fantastic job in digitizing the historic mine records so we’re able to take those and then overlay them with current land use maps. And so we’ve put those together. This is the published form it’s coming out. It’s on SNAP plus and also all the county land use planning agencies are now using that kind of as a predictive tool of if we’re going to develop this area or if we’re going to put in, say, put in a new water tower you take a look at the maps and say oh well that one’s that one’s kind of near where the historic mine activity occurred. We need to be a little more cautious in excavating maybe we need to test and see if it’s high on lead just to be protective of the human health for people surrounding and also the workers doing the work.

Adam Wigger: Thank you Geoff! We’ve been talking with Geoff Siemering, Extension Soil Science Outreach Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Soil Science and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger.

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