14 May 2012

Tribe Plants Trees to Soak Up Toxins in Polluted Land

Story first appeared in the Record Eagle.

A northern Michigan Indian tribe will plant thousands of black willows on a contaminated site, hoping the trees will help cleanse the area by pulling toxic chemicals from the ground, a leader said Wednesday.

The 1.5-acre parcel near Manistee was an industrial site for decades, and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians acquired it in 1998. A sawmill was located there in the 19th century. Later came a salt mining operation, chemical companies, and plants that manufactured asphalt and fiberglass.

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a nonprofit group that clones some of the world's biggest and oldest trees to preserve their genetics, is donating the black willows. Between 3,500 and 4,000 will be planted, said Meryl Marsh, the organization's director of operations.

Scientists say some trees and other plants can remove heavy metals such as zinc and cadmium from the soil through their roots and store them in stems, shoots and leaves-- a process known as phytoremediation.

It's a far cheaper option than scraping up the contaminated dirt and replacing it with fresh soil, Mitchell said. This is a far simpler, and more natural approach to ridding the area of the contaminants.

The tribe will take core samples yearly to analyze how well the trees are performing. The tribe is hoping that eventually the land can be used for something else.

The fast-growing black willow, with its netlike root systems, is among the most widely used species for phytoremediation. It's also well-suited to the moist soils of the polluted site near Manistee Lake, a swollen river mouth that flows into Lake Michigan.

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