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.

Then she got Doe Run's attention the hard way. In September 1995, Andrew, Emily and Lauren became three of 10 plaintiffs in a personal-injury lawsuit against the company and its owners. The suit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, is still pending. Not long after, the Brownings decided to leave Herculaneum. The family returned from a vacation in 1995 and found the windows of their house shattered. All the doors were still locked, and there was no evidence of vandalism. Browning says a neighbor told her there'd been an explosion at the smelter. Not locked into a mortgage, the Brownings concluded that it was time to go.

"First of all, our kids are leaded. Second, I figured they were going to blow us off the map," she says. In 1996, the family moved to Festus. "When I moved out, I moved on," she says.

Her mother, June Myers, says the experience was and remains unsettling. She wonders whether her own children were exposed, whether she should have known more. "I have actually cried about it because I did not know what I know now. Like Brenda says, 'Maybe we had geniuses in Herculaneum, but we will never know because they were exposed to lead.'"

Ald. Leslie Warden: "Being naïve, we thought the government kept that place from harming anyone."
Jennifer Silverberg
Ald. Leslie Warden: "Being naïve, we thought the government kept that place from harming anyone."
Doe Run employees now routinely sweep and vacuum Herculaneum streets for lead dust.
Jennifer Silverberg
Doe Run employees now routinely sweep and vacuum Herculaneum streets for lead dust.

While Brenda Browning was trying to stir things up, Mike Coffey was closing in on a problem identified by a former colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Routine monitoring of the Mississippi River in 1989 had identified large traces of heavy-metal pollutants -- lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper, nickel and zinc -- in river sediment in a couple of hotspots, including an area just south of Herculaneum, where Joachim Creek meets the Mississippi. The area is home to a rich array of small animals. Migratory birds -- red-tailed hawks, belted kingfishers, great blue herons -- use the site during breeding season. Bald eagles have been spotted in the bottomland forest; the endangered pallid sturgeon is known to swim in the area.

Coffey, a biologist with the service's Rock Island, Ill., field office, wanted to find out whether wildlife, especially protected and endangered species, was being affected by the pollution. He collected water and sediment samples in 1992 to confirm the unusually high heavy-metal readings in the river. Fish he sent to the University of Iowa for testing seemed to confirm a problem below the confluence of Joachim Creek and the Mississippi -- carp and catfish caught south of Herculaneum had much higher readings for lead and other metals than fish caught farther north. Then, the flood of '93 broke levees and dramatically altered the topography around the river. Sediments near the Doe Run site, which adjoins the Mississippi, were buried or swept away. But when Coffey returned in 1995 to take new sediment samples, they again confirmed high levels of lead, nickel and zinc near Herculaneum. He broadened his efforts to include samples from frogs, mice and birds.

Everything seemed to confirm the initial findings: There was an unusually high level of heavy-metal contamination. Of the 21 birds he collected in 1997 and sent to Des Moines for examination, five -- four common grackles and a cedar waxwing -- met the threshold for clinical lead poisoning. In other words, the birds were so leaded, they were considered biologically impaired; if they hadn't given their lives for science, they likely would have died of poisoning. Another eight birds -- grackles, blackbirds, waxwings and swallows -- met the threshold for subclinical lead poisoning, enough, some studies suggest, to feel pain.

If these birds were being leaded, Coffey theorized, protected species might also be at risk. Dan Burleson, a veteran criminal investigator for Fish and Wildlife, joined Coffey's inquiry, and they boated up Joachim Creek, looking for evidence of sick or dying animals and taking water and sediment samples. The creek partially encircles the smelter's slag pile -- a 24-acre moonscape of glassy black waste that's been steadily building since the mid-1940s. In some places, the pile reaches a height of 50 feet. During spring and fall flooding, Joachim Creek laps the edge of the pile; during high floods, as in 1993, the water climbs several feet up the waste. Slag, a waste product, contains small levels of lead and zinc, but the metals are tightly bound. Studies have shown that the bioavailability of lead from slag is low, so something else had to explain why the levels of lead and other heavy metals in the river and wildlife were so high.

As part of the investigation, Burleson went to Hillsboro to check property records and, by happenstance, met an ex-Doe Run employee with a story to tell. The former smelter worker, now on the Jefferson County payroll, claimed to have information about hazardous waste in the slag pile and said other workers could provide details. The ex-worker, who asked the Riverfront Times not to use his name, and Mike Lewis, who'd been a crane operator in the yard before the strike, met with Burleson and other investigators at least twice. At the first meeting, in early 1998, they examined a map of the plant site and tried to identify locations where hazardous waste allegedly had been buried. The men also provided names of other former smelter workers who might be able to verify their account.

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