Environmental regulators are trying to turn a former lead mining site back into a forest
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are restoring a portion of Missouri's Old Lead Belt back into a forest.
It's the first effort that federal and state officials have made to restore a part of the Madison County Mines Superfund Site, part of the Southeast Missouri Lead District. In the 19th century, lead mining heavily contaminated the area, which was listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List in 2003.
Federal agencies cleaned up the 110-acre restoration site, called the Little St. Francis River chat pile, in late 2010 and early 2011. "Chat" refers to the waste left behind after the lead ore was removed, which contained various heavy metals. The site is located in the city of Fredericktown, about 90 miles south of St. Louis. State and federal officials planted 550 trees there last November, expecting that will grow into a floodplain forest.
The reforestation could improve local water quality, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitats, said John Weber, an environmental contaminants specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's important for people who are recreating in the river, whether they are fishing or floating," Weber said. "It's important for downstream species of mussels. There's some species listed on the endangered species list that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about."
Agency officials are also working with Fredericktown city officials on the restoration efforts, which they expect will expand in the coming years beyond the Little St. Francis River chat pile.
"I think it's important for current and future residents to restore these areas back to a natural state," said John Bennett, the former city manager for Fredericktown. Bennett is currently developing a plan to clean up the local watershed.
Trustees of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, a part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, allocated $150,000 for the project. In addition to the tree planting, officials will also bring in volunteers to help remove invasive species, such as the autumn olive and the bush honeysuckle. The Fish and Wildlife Service will check in on the restoration's progress on a quarterly basis over the next 10 years.
“Part of the legacy of southeast Missouri is indeed heavy metals and mining, but it’s also a really big part of the culture and heritage of Madison and other counties in southeast Missouri," Weber said. "I like to think of it as a nice way for this story to conclude. If we can take a previously contaminated site and make it back into viable habitat that serves the needs of people and wildlife, then we’ve done a good thing.”
Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli