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.

The community-advisory group was seen as a way for regulators and Doe Run to keep the public informed about the progress of the cleanup and to solicit information from residents. But the monthly meetings, a magnet for lawyers and the media, have become a way for environmental and community activists (including Brenda Browning, who has picked up where she left off five years ago) to keep pressure on the regulators. That's what happened after the meeting in August, when Jack Warden urged Dave Mosby of the DNR to test the dust that was collecting in the town's streets.

The smelter gets most of its lead concentrate from Doe Run's mines in the Viburnum Trend, a 40-mile lead vein that run through Washington, Iron and Reynolds counties. In August 1999, rail service was discontinued. Vornberg says the consolidation of companies in Missouri's lead-mining district -- "There were six companies down there, and we're the only one left" -- meant there was less traffic, making the line unprofitable for the railroad. Without rail, about 200 concentrate trucks lumber through Herculaneum each week and, along the way, spill dust, which gathers in potholes and cracks and along the roadway and in yards. The consent order required Doe Run to test and remediate soil in residential areas, control run-off from the slag pile and implement a community blood-lead plan. But it didn't address dust on the street.

Mosby, the state's project director on the Herculaneum cleanup, personally took a grab sample of the dust on Aug. 21. The state lab sent back its findings two weeks later: The dust had registered a whopping 300,000 parts per million, or 30 percent lead. Mosby immediately sent a letter to Mayor Chamis, warning him of an "immediate public-health threat," and DNR posted signs on streets near the smelter. When Chamis saw the signs, which said "Street Closed to Pedestrian Traffic Due to Lead Contamination," he just about blew a gasket. Residents were calling him to ask, "'How are going to get out of our cars and walk to our house?' I said, 'For Chrissakes!'" (Later signs posted by DNR warn: "High Lead Levels on Streets." In small print, the signs advise that children should play not in the streets but only on "solid grass cover" or at the Crystal City park.)

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

The lead dust got regulators' attention. Doe Run was told to sweep and vacuum the haul routes, clean trucks that leave the facility and accelerate its testing and remediation of residential yards. If the company didn't comply, the order signed Sept. 25 by DNR director Stephen Mahfood threatened to stop the transport of "lead concentrate and other hazardous substances along the public streets of Herculaneum." Nine days later, Doe Run filed an appeal, arguing that the state was relying on "mistaken assumptions." As for the dust on the street? "The finding of small amounts of lead concentrate in certain locations on the streets of Herculaneum does not equate to a significant public-health risk," wrote Doe Run lawyer Richard Ahrens, of the St. Louis firm of Lewis, Rice & Fingersh. The DNR order has been stayed until a hearing date is set -- and that still hasn't happened.

Doe Run was caught off guard by the state's reaction to the discovery of lead dust. "What appears to have happened is, you've got one spill -- 2 feet by 1 foot and about an inch thick in a dip in the road -- that took on a life of its own," Vornberg says. Although the company doesn't deny that lead dust has spilled on the streets, settling in cracks and holes, Vornberg suggests that the regulatory response was overblown: "It's not like there's lead on the whole street."

Zelms says the company's mine and mill employees work around lead concentrate and that typically the only time there's a blood-lead problem is if an employee, using a torch or welder, inadvertently converts the lead sulfide in the concentrate into lead oxide, which he then inhales. "Our inclination based on those facts is to discredit the seriousness of lead concentrates," Zelms says.

That sanguine view wasn't shared by regulators. Denise Jordan-Izaguirre, senior regional representative for the ATSDR, says the high lead level in the dust and the fact that the lead particles were small enough to be inhaled posed a serious risk. "The early data that the EPA has collected with their monitors along the haul routes shows us that vehicular traffic was stirring this up and getting this lead concentrate in this air -- and it's a fine enough particulant that it's respirable," she says.

Until the dust was sampled, Leslie Warden says, the EPA and DNR folks didn't appear very energetic. "The 300,000 parts per million seemed to pep them up a little," she says.

For years, Doe Run told Herculaneum residents that lead exposure could come from many sources other than the smelter -- miniblinds, ceramics, fishing tackle and, the biggest likely offender, lead-based paint in older buildings.

But in September, when ATSDR released the results of its exposure investigation of two Herculaneum households -- taking samples of yard soil, air, interior dust, water and paint, then checking for matching lead-isotope ratios in the blood and urine of family members -- the conclusions seemed inescapable. "It was very clear -- very clear -- with the two families that we looked at that the residents -- children, older kids and adults -- were not being exposed from water or lead-based paint," says Jordan-Izaguirre. "For the community, it verified what they've been feeling: It's not a lead-based-paint issue."

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