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.

That's the way things were in a company town, where the smelter's blast furnaces first began melting lead from ore in 1892. St. Joe Lead Co., predecessor to Doe Run, built Herculaneum's homes, owned the town grocery and was the main source of income for most families. With so many locals working at the plant, the company and community had a strong bond, one that often worked to the company's advantage. "For years, you could smell the sulfuric acid," says Mike Lewis, an ex-employee, "and a lot of people would say, 'Aw, hell, I'm not going to call, because my brother works there, my son works there.'" So few residents seemed willing to take on the company that environmentalists didn't bother. "Years ago, I would never have thought of going into Herculaneum," says Tom Kruzen, an environmental activist who's been on an 18-year-long warpath against the state's lead-mining industry.

But attitudes began to change in the early 1990s, triggered in large part by a bitter strike.

In early 1992, the Teamsters Union -- which represented about 270 smelter workers -- and the company were getting nowhere in negotiations. Doe Run, then a subsidiary of Irvine, Calif.-based Fluor Corp., demanded concessions, including cuts in the numbers of job and wage classifications. When talks stalled, the company imposed its last contract offer and members of Local 688 walked out. Just as in 1984, when the United Steelworkers struck Doe Run's mines, the company brought in replacement workers. With the smelter strike heading into its third year, Fluor sold Doe Run to a New York holding company controlled by billionaire Ira Leon Rennert. By the end of 1994, the new workforce at the smelter had voted 251-51 to decertify the union, and the Teamsters were gone.

Herculaneum Mayor John Chamis: "It's a really nice, peaceful town. Good neighbors. Everything's good -- until this problem came up about this pollution stuff."
Jennifer Silverberg
Herculaneum Mayor John Chamis: "It's a really nice, peaceful town. Good neighbors. Everything's good -- until this problem came up about this pollution stuff."
Brenda Browning (second from right, with her children Lauren, Andrew and Emily) grew up near the smelter: "I remember days we couldn't walk downtown because your lungs would burn."
Jennifer Silverberg
Brenda Browning (second from right, with her children Lauren, Andrew and Emily) grew up near the smelter: "I remember days we couldn't walk downtown because your lungs would burn."

Lawrence Casey, a 40-year employee who retired in 1992, notes that the strike hardened attitudes in the community against the company but says that what really riled people -- especially those who didn't have a stake in the labor dispute -- was how the company dealt with residents whose property was damaged. "They let emissions out over the city, and it got on peoples' cars and on their houses, and people started taking notice that something was going wrong," says Casey. Cars and homes were spotted whenever there was an accidental release of sulfuric acid, but Doe Run was reluctant to compensate residents, Casey says. Given that the smelter had routinely violated air-quality standards since 1978, city officials complained to the state Air Conservation Commission, where, in 1993, they found a less-than-receptive audience. "We're not interested in running scared and shutting down something every time somebody hollers," said then-commission chairman Johnny Ray Conklin.

Brenda Browning, at home with two toddlers and an infant, wasn't paying much attention to the strike, but she remembers getting informational fliers from Doe Run telling residents how to prevent lead poisoning. At the time, Doe Run had been quietly buying properties close to the smelter -- it owns more than 80 in the city now, many still occupied by renters -- and was replacing some contaminated yards. "That was actually the first I really recall thinking about it," Browning says. She spoke with a neighbor, a striking employee of Doe Run, about the company and what he knew, and the next time she took the kids for their regular check-ups, she asked her St. Louis pediatrician whether they should be tested for lead. "He said, 'Where do you live?' I said, 'Herculaneum,' and he said, 'Move!' That was his response -- I'll never forget it," Browning says.

The test results confirmed her fears -- all three children had high blood-lead levels, and if Lauren's level went any higher, the doctor warned, "she'd have to have treatment," Browning recalls. Concerned, she tried to learn all she could about lead poisoning. There was plenty of information available. Studies had shown that young children poisoned by lead will exhibit anemia, kidney damage, severe stomachaches, muscle weakness and brain damage. Lead poisoning can cause learning difficulties and damage the nervous and reproductive systems; it's also been linked to behavioral disorders such as aggression and inattentiveness. Since 1991, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has considered any blood-lead level greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter unsafe. Lauren had tested at 19, Browning says.

Suspecting that her children weren't the only ones who'd been "leaded," Browning went door to door, asking neighbors about lead. She called the press. She contacted the Missouri Coalition for the Environment; its executive director, Roger Pryor (now deceased), agreed to meet with residents if Browning could gather a "substantial group." She tried to find a facility for a meeting, but a church she approached insisted that Doe Run be represented -- "and that was not what we were looking for at that time." When she asked to use the AmVets building, she was turned down. "They said, 'Doe Run's our landlord -- we can't do that," Browning says.

Getting anybody in state government or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency interested proved an even bigger challenge. She wrote the EPA regional office in Kansas City: "The time is now for the EPA to intervene, to communicate with the residents of Herculaneum [and] end the lead contamination in our community," she pleaded, sending copies of the letter to every local official and media outlet she could think of. "I couldn't get anybody's attention, to be quite honest." A Missouri Department of Natural Resources employee promised he'd come to Herculaneum, "but that never happened," Browning says.

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