Crossroads is cleaning up the remnants of past orchard management practices that left high concentrations of lead and arsenic in the soil
Bill Schuster, Door County’s founding and now-retired county conservationist, spent about a decade of his almost 40-year career cleaning lead and arsenic out of Door County soil – remnants of the cherry and apple orchard industry’s past management practices.
“Also, my home was on Cherry Road,” said the Door County native. “I went to Cherry School. I planted, cleaned, fertilized, tipped and sprayed cherry and apple orchards my entire childhood.”
His grandfather, Eli Solway, ran outside operations for the Reynolds brothers.
“Reynolds’ and Martin’s were the two largest orchards in Door County, and the largest in the world at the time,” Schuster said.
Those were the days when thousands of workers migrated to Door County each season to harvest, Schuster said, well over 10,000 acres of cherry orchards, 2,000 acres of apples and scatterings of pears.
“And all of these were sprayed with lead arsenate for years and years and years,” he said.
Orchard owners mixed lead-arsenate powder – lead and arsenic combined – with water and sprayed the soluble solution on apple and cherry trees to control pests. It was a licensed product and legal chemical, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prescribed by the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and widely used from the 1890s to the 1960s, according to the Wisconsin Department of Trade, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The EPA would ban the product in 1988 but in the meantime, pests grew resistant to the chemical cocktail, requiring the application of more and more lead arsenate.
“We would be out there spraying it all times of the day in the week,” Schuster said. “We were covered in it.”
Ironic, then, that Schuster would grow up to be the county’s first Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD) conservationist, leading the design and execution of a program that would clean the soil that he said his own grandfather had been responsible for contaminating.
“I bleed cherry juice at times,” Schuster said. “This is a topic that is close.”
Crossroads Cleans Mixing Sites
Schuster offered his historical context during a recent information session that Crossroads at Big Creek hosted on how the nonprofit organization is reclaiming two contaminated sites on its former Sturgeon Bay orchard property once used for mixing lead arsenate.
“We’ve been using this quote of Maya Angelou’s for the last year: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,’” said Laurel Duffin Hauser, Crossroads former executive director and current development director.
Lead and arsenic naturally occur in soil, but that background level is generally lower than areas where the pesticides were used, according to DATCP. Even the former orchard land where the pesticides were sprayed typically don’t have concentrations high enough to cause “immediate negative health effects,” according to DATCP.
Practically speaking, it’s not possible to clean all the soil in Door County of all the lead and arsenic accumulated over nearly 100 years of use.
“You can’t dig up the whole county, put it in a landfill and have no topsoil,” said Ken Ebbott, senior project manager and geologist with Sand County Environmental.
Instead, the state zoomed in on the mixing sites that data showed contained the highest concentrations of lead and arsenic in the soil.
“That’s where we mixed it,” Schuster said. “That’s where we cleaned the tank. That’s where a 12-year-old kid who was done for the day, and there was still pesticide in the tank, just let it all dump because he wanted to go home.”
The Crossroads mixing sites had been identified previously, but moved into focus upon completion of an ecological restoration plan its Board of Directors adopted in 2020.
“We really felt like if this is something that’s important to do for the health of the community and the health of the land, let’s look into doing it,” Hauser said. “And let’s not do it in the dark of night.”
It wasn’t a simple process for staff to fully understand the issue. Hauser handed off a thick accordion file stuffed with some of their research, including data on lead and arsenate toxicity, reports on contaminated sites across the county, and alternative remediation strategies that used plants to pull up contamination.
“We spent a lot of time researching that,” Hauser said. “Do mushrooms pull up lead and arsenic? What can we do that would be less disruptive to the land than scraping soil.”
In the end, “those other options require longer time scales,” said Sam Koyen, Crossroads executive director, and former SWCD conservationist. She said what Crossroads wanted to do was address the immediate problem and the way to do that, according to all their research, was to scrape up the contaminated soil and truck it away. So that’s what they did.
Sand County Environmental out of Amherst, Wisconsin, excavated the top six inches of soil over hot spots identified by soil borings within Crossroads’ former orchard land and, on a chilly Nov. 3 morning, hauled the last of the 16 dump-truck loads of contaminated soil to a waste management facility in Whitelaw, Wisconsin.
Come spring, the remediation plan, designed by Nick Lutzke, Crossroads land and facilities manager, calls for native grasses, trees and shrubs planted in new soil screened for invasives.
“We wanted to use it as a teaching moment,” Hauser said. “If nothing else, look how expensive it is to fix mistakes of the past.”
The total cost to remediate the two sites totaling .27 acres together – or 12,500 square feet total – will be about $80,000. DATCP’s Agricultural Chemical Cleanup Program will pay $60,000 of that, with Crossroads picking up $10,000 and the County of Door cost-sharing the other $10,000.
Greg Coulthurst, SWCD conservationist, said this is the first lead-arsenate-related soil remediation that he can recall the county cost-sharing since the 1990s.
“It’s a program area that we may circle around on again to see how many sites are still in need of clean up, and if landowners have changed their minds,” Coulthurst said.
The Present Isn’t All in the Past
The Crossroads soil reclamation project is dredging up past history, but the story hasn’t ended. Lead and arsenic are metals. They don’t degrade over time and they’re not very mobile, Ebbot said, generally holding within the first six to 18 inches of soil.
Mark McColloch with DATCP’s Environmental Quality unit said DATCP has closed approximately 21 lead and arsenic cases in Door County, with another 39 cases still open, and 32 of those with identified soil contamination at former mix and load pads. All of the cases, open or closed, are at former orchards.
It’s not common for the metals to leach into groundwater, Ebbott said, unless the soils happen to be thin – as they are in many places in Door County. But they’ve tested the wells at Crossroads and its nearby Observatory and no contamination has been found. Door County’s private well monitoring program shows the presence of arsenic in the majority of wells tested between 2019 and 2023 – between 148 and 295 wells – at concentrations below the state average.
Exposure doesn’t only happen by digestion, however, but through inhalation and direct contact. If the metals are present in the soil, exposure can happen by playing in bare soil, gardening, or even eating fruits and vegetables grown in contaminated soil, according to the EPA.
Long-term exposure to lead, according to DATCP, can affect brain and nervous system development in children. Exposure to high lead levels can adversely affect the nervous system and kidneys of adults and children. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause several kinds of cancer.
The First Cleanup
Door County’s first alert to the dangers of lead arsenate came in the mid-1980s after a couple of wells in Sevastopol with lead contamination led to the discovery of the connection with the historic pesticide use, Schuster said. Some 40 mixing sites were identified within Door County at that time, and cleaning 24 of the highest-concentration sites became the responsibility of Schuster’s department.
Working closely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Schuster said they excavated 12 inches of topsoil and/or to bedrock from former orchards concentrated between Sturgeon Bay and Carlsville, around Egg Harbor, and near Sister Bay – and largely upon the thin soils gifted by receding glaciers.
“Almost all the orchards are on the western side where the soils are lighter and the growing season longer, and it’s also where the shallowest soils are in the county,” Schuster said. “You’re going to see a real match of our shallowest, most groundwater–threatening situations and the orchard industry.”
It wasn’t always clear who was responsible for the high costs of cleanup. DATCP oversees approved chemicals and agricultural applications, the DNR the cleanup of contaminated sites. Then there were the orchard owners. If they couldn’t be held culpable for using a legal chemical, they were found responsible for mixing site-practices.
“Mixing sites were the location of misuse, not prescribed use,” Schuster said.
Owners were considered at fault and responsible for the initial cost of cleaning.
“The state was willing to help with the cleanup of those that were not culpable,” Schuster said. “And then we went to the [Door] County Board and rather quickly got [cleanup] funding for those landowners found culpable. There were quite a few of them, because those were the owners of the orchards of those mixing sites.”
The sites with more than 500 parts per million of lead, and 100 parts per million of arsenic, were the numbers decided upon back when his department set out to clean mixing sites across the peninsula.
“Two of the sites were so bad they were considered hazardous waste sites,” Schuster said, but to treat hazardous waste was cost prohibitive. Instead, they tilled triple superphosphate and magnesium oxide into the soil, which caused the lead and arsenic to bind to the soil particles, according to a 1992 report from the engineering firm retained by the DNR. The soil could then be removed and disposed of as non-hazardous.
“I’m not sure to this day if that was the right thing to do, but that’s what we did,” Schuster said.
Pesticide Use Today
The EPA officially banned lead-arsenate pesticide in 1988.
Other management practices have been adopted for Door County orchards, which remain big business – Wisconsin’s cherry production is nearly entirely from Door County, according to statistics from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and in overall fruit, tree nuts and berries, the county ranks sixth in the state.
Information on current practices of pest control can be found in the Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide, or tinyurl.com/2p93aznh, a document developed by Midwestern universities, including the University of Wisconsin. The pesticide products in the guide are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For more information on the EPA’s pesticide registration process, go to epa.gov/pesticide-registration/about-pesticide-registration.
Door County Lead-Arsenate Sites
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources maintains a statewide database of all active and closed lead-arsenic cases at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Brownfields/WRRD.html.
Door County also maintains a GIS map layer showing prior orchard locations and known prior orchard mixing areas at map.co.door.wi.us/map/.