To clean contaminated soil, pilot project tries growing mushrooms

In the garage of a vacant farmhouse at the Marathon County landfill, mushrooms are growing in contaminated soil. The soil was the site of an oil spill in the Fox Valley. Plants will not grow on it, but it is not safe to leave it either; there is not much that can be done for it. The usual result of such a spill is that all the contaminated soil needs to be dug up and carted to the landfill.

Mushrooms may hold the key to changing all that. They are part of an innovative pilot project to study the effects and potential applications of "mycoremediation," or cleaning soil by growing mushrooms on it.

The study is using pearl oyster and Italian oyster mushrooms — gourmet varieties. Mushroom farmer Jerome Segura, whose Stevens Point-based business Segura Mushrooms sells all over the country, takes a sample of the soil from one container, noting the dense network of mycelium that has grown below its surface.

"It's definitely penetrating in, which is good," said Alex Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a researcher on the project, which is being run by the Marathon County Solid Waste Department. The mushrooms here are 10 weeks old at this time, and still growing despite the chilly mid-November weather, but these are the last soil samples the team will take from this experiment. From here, the samples are headed to the lab, where scientists test whether growing the mushrooms here effectively cleansed the soil of contaminants.

Mycoremediation is not widely practiced in the United States, but scientific studies out of Germany, Finland, and elsewhere support the idea that growing mushrooms can be a surprisingly effective way to clean up soil. A study out of India even found mushrooms removed 100 percent of certain contaminants from soils.

In central Wisconsin, solid waste department director Meleesa Johnson teamed with Segura, Thomas, and Solid Waste Management Board member Ashley Lange to create the study. The pilot launched in September, and they are expecting preliminary results in December. In the meantime, the team already has plans to expand the experiment and test other uses and applications.

Johnson said it is part of the department's mission to consider "how we can be better stewards of the land by finding alternative uses for waste materials."

She is hoping the lab results show mushrooms have real cleanup potential, and there is some preliminary reason for optimism. "Our control soils, if you dig into it, it smells like oil," Thomas said. After my mycoremediation, the soil "came back smelling really clean — to me, it almost smelled like baby powder. That's an early indication that hopefully, we'll see some results."

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