Heavy-Metal Racket

John Chamis and other residents of lead-contaminated Herculaneum are tired of getting jerked around by regulators and by Doe Run. They're demanding answers -- and results.

Seemed like Wilma was always hollering about John's smelly shirts and pants, especially after his Wednesday volunteer-firefighter meetings, when he'd come home with a distinct rotten-egg odor. John wasn't happy about it, either: "I can smell it myself, and I don't do nothing to get in the dirt or nothing."

But after Wilma returned from a recent function at fire-department headquarters in Herculaneum, she stopped griping. "I know why your clothes stink," Wilma told him. "I was at the firehouse -- smell my blouse."

After he retired from his truck-driving job, John Chamis decided he and Wilma would move from South St. Louis and find a safe, quiet community in which to spend the rest of their lives. John thought he'd found just the place. On the job, he'd often driven to Herculaneum, making deliveries to the old lead smelter on Main Street, and the more times he made the short trip to Jefferson County, the more he liked what he saw. With its inexpensive old homes, schools, churches, parks and creek, Herculaneum -- the locals call it "Herky" -- felt like a village untouched by urban sprawl and developers. "I seen this as a nice, peaceful town," Chamis says.

Jennifer Silverberg
Warning signs went up in Herculaneum in early September.
Jennifer Silverberg
Warning signs went up in Herculaneum in early September.

In December 1994, the couple paid $77,000 for a two-bedroom ranch-style house on Jefferson Street, then started fixing up the place and making friends. "It was just a great place to retire," Chamis says.

That was then. Now, the couple's house is up for sale, and they've already shown it to a couple of prospective buyers.

Chamis says he and his wife had no idea the town was so polluted -- no clue that when he'd go to the firehouse, his clothes would pick up the smell of sulfur dioxide emissions from the smelter; that their yard, located about a mile north of the smelter, would be contaminated with lead; that he and Wilma would end up with lead in their bloodstreams. "I'm sorry, I don't want to live around stuff like that," Chamis says.

In recent months, as more information has trickled out about the smelter's operations, other residents have put their homes up for sale or moved away. But Chamis insists he's not leaving Herculaneum, just moving farther away from the smelter.

It's a good thing Chamis isn't leaving town, considering that he's the mayor of Herculaneum.

When he ran in April, his campaign motto was "Watch Herculaneum grow." Until recently, Chamis was convinced he could deliver on that promise; today, he compares his town to a place that has disappeared from Missouri's map.

"This lead stuff is terrible," he says. "It's really worse than Times Beach."


If the mayor sounds a little bent, consider that in the past four months, the 2,800 residents of Herculaneum -- the home of the nation's biggest lead smelter -- have been told:

  • They shouldn't walk on certain residential streets because of dust that's spilled from trucks hauling lead concentrate.
  • About 22 percent of the children under the age of 6 have high blood-lead levels (the state average is 8 percent); that even with an accelerated cleanup program, it will be years before some Herculaneum children stop being poisoned.
  • At least 510 of the town's 530 residential yards located east of Highway 61-67 are so contaminated with lead that they'll have to be replaced. That includes yards whose topsoil had been replaced just a few years ago.
  • Half of the dust samples from the town's elementary, middle and high schools exceed federal guidelines for lead. Even the elementary school in neighboring Pevely was found to be contaminated.
  • The number of people in the town afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and multiple sclerosis, neurological diseases linked to heavy-metal exposure, is unusually high. One official characterizes the reports -- that there may be as many as six cases of ALS in Herculaneum -- as "extremely distressing."
  • Evacuation of part of the town is being considered by regulators, although they're quick to caution that there are insufficient data now to warrant such a drastic step.
  • But it's not all gloom and doom in Herculaneum.

    Just in time for the holidays, Doe Run Resources Corp., a company with net worldwide sales exceeding $800 million, announced it was giving away 400 high-efficiency vacuum cleaners so residents can do a better job of cleaning up lead in their homes.

    That's more than Brenda Browning ever received from the St. Louis-based company.

    Browning, who was raised in Herky, moved back to her parents' old house when she and her husband, Steve, began having children. Twins Andrew and Emily were born in 1990; Lauren arrived in 1993. When Browning and her brother, Tim, were growing up in the house on Mott Street, living three-tenths of a mile from the smelter was no big thing -- other than the fact that sometimes it was hard to breathe outside. "I remember, as a kid, we had an old pharmacy with a soda fountain, and it was a treat to go down there," she says. "I remember days we couldn't walk downtown because your lungs would burn -- we couldn't breathe, so we'd have to go back home."

    As for lead, nobody seemed concerned. June Myers, Brenda's mom and a longtime resident of Herculaneum, says people didn't know enough. Sure, neighbors employed at the smelter sometimes stayed off the job until their lead levels went down, but then they'd go back to work. If there was any risk to people who didn't work at the plant, Myers says, she didn't know about it. She certainly didn't hear about it from the family doctor, who delivered her two children. "He was a sweetie," Myers recalls, but, like many city officials at the time, the doctor also worked for the lead company.

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