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.

Those ex-employees had some things in common: They'd worked for years in the yard, operating such heavy equipment as front-end loaders and cranes, and almost all had lost their jobs involuntarily, many because of the strike. Bob Nash, an ex-foreman, says the slag pile -- he refers to it as "12" for the number of the railroad track that ran to the dump -- was "used for burying just about anything that we couldn't get rid of otherwise: barrels, pieces of [rail]cars and all kinds of stuff." Nash, who never spoke with investigators, recalls one time when the company couldn't get rid of railcars of cadmium (a metal found in lead ore and a byproduct of lead refining); the cars were emptied, cut up and buried in the slag pile. As for the cadmium, he's not sure where it went, "but I think it eventually did go to 12," he says. Had investigators spoken with Dicky Rawson of Bonne Terre, he would have told them that he buried "barrels of arsenic" and worn-out, contaminated equipment in the slag pile. "If you go down there, on track 12, there's stuff out there you wouldn't believe. I think it's still there -- they wouldn't go through that much trouble, digging the stuff back up," Rawson says. It's unclear whether any of the information Nash, Rawson and other former Doe Run workers have would be useful to investigators, given that the accounts are old and not easily verified. The ex-workers insist they're telling the truth, but all have an ax to grind with their former employer: Nash, for example, was fired in 1991 and later filed an age-discrimination lawsuit that was settled.

Dan Vornberg, vice president of environmental affairs for Doe Run, says he doesn't know of any hazardous-waste burials in the slag pile. "I can tell you this: I came to the plant in 1981, and I campaigned vigorously to make sure, 'Hey, nothing goes out there,'" he says. "I used to walk that pile once a week, and if I found railroad ties -- if I found anything out there, we had a face-to-face on the issue and got the word out that this is not a trash dump.... I can't tell you if there were railcars of cadmium buried before I got there, but I can tell you I would never have tolerated that in the last 20 years. If somebody went out there and buried something, it would have been an unauthorized event. We'd have no knowledge of it."

Burleson says he never took what Lewis and his friend told him "as the gospel." He didn't have to -- the results Fish and Wildlife was getting back from the testing lab already suggested there were materials other than slag in the pile. "From what I saw and what we discovered, they [Lewis and his friend] probably weren't far off," Burleson says. Evidence, even anecdotal evidence, that there was hazardous waste in the pile pushed the investigators. Says Burleson: "It encouraged us to look a little deeper, pursue it a little harder."

Robyn Warden's daughter, Grace (rear), had dangerous blood-lead levels that went as high as 44 micrograms per deciliter. Warden's son, Aaron, is in the foreground.
Jennifer Silverberg
Robyn Warden's daughter, Grace (rear), had dangerous blood-lead levels that went as high as 44 micrograms per deciliter. Warden's son, Aaron, is in the foreground.

It was time to get other agencies involved. Making a criminal case would be difficult. When dealing with migratory birds that are poisoned, investigators says it's hard to identify the source of the poisonings with certainty. But there was plenty of information to indicate there was a problem in Herculaneum -- and it wasn't just fish and birds that needed protecting. "We had several years of data relating to the health of wildlife, but most people in the regulatory business are concerned about one particular species, and that's us," Coffey says. "Our evidence of all those things potentially happening to wildlife might be a snapshot of what's happening to us."

That evidence was sent to the EPA, and Burleson and Coffey worked the phones. "We talked to state, federal, different groups -- and then other people started looking into it," Burleson says. Their information, along with the fact that Doe Run still hadn't met the Clean Air Act standard for lead emissions, got the bureaucracy rolling.

Coffey and Burleson succeeded in doing what Browning, the mother of three leaded children in Herculaneum, couldn't do: They got the EPA to pay attention.

On Sept. 25, 2000, without his company's admitting any liability, Doe Run president Jeffrey L. Zelms signed a proposed consent order agreeing to finally meet air-emissions standards by July 31, 2002; explore ways of controlling runoff from the slag pile, develop a community-wide blood-screening plan; and test and remediate contaminated residential yards. The consent order, co-signed by DNR, did not require Doe Run to cut production or make any immediate changes in operations. Herculaneum residents learned the details at a public meeting in December 2000. After a two-month public-comment period, the consent order went into effect, with only minor changes, on May 29.

A Herculaneum resident since 1991, Leslie Warden was a vocal critic of a proposed land swap in which Doe Run would get a piece of Main Street in exchange for company property the city wanted for a sewage-treatment plant. The proposal, floated in early 2000 and supported by Tom Griffith, the mayor at the time and a smelter employee, was part of Doe Run's plan to build a new haul route to the smelter. Warden argued that the deal would hurt property values in the city's 1st Ward, where she and her husband, Jack, lived. It wasn't her only beef with Doe Run -- she also believed that the company, by routinely appealing its assessments in Jefferson County, was holding up additional funding for the public schools. Energized by those concerns, Warden was elected in April 2000 as one of the city's six aldermen. Pollution wasn't a campaign issue, but Warden had a copy of a preliminary assessment on the smelter site completed by DNR in March 1999, and she was just getting warmed up.

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