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.

Vornberg, Doe Run's top environmental executive, concedes that examining and matching lead-isotope ratios is a "powerful technique" but questions whether sampling was sufficient to yield a "black-and-white" conclusion. In Herculaneum's older housing, he says, the lead-based paint would have contained Missouri lead, making it difficult to differentiate between lead dust from the plant and dust from the deteriorating paint. "If I'd gotten that report, I would have raised some more questions," he says.

Assuming that the ATSDR study correctly points to Doe Run as the main source of lead contamination, shutting down the smelter won't solve the problem, says Jordan-Izaguirre. "Closing the facility down simply takes away one exposure," she says. "People are breathing contaminated air, but even if that ceases, children are still going to be playing in that contaminated soil, there'll still be interior dust, there'll be hand-to-mouth [ingestion], it's still in their parks -- shutting the facility down removes the least of the hazards."

Regulators figure they'll get more accomplished by keeping Doe Run cooperative.

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

Last month, when a resident asked him, 'Why not just shut the smelter?' Tony Petruska, the EPA's top man on Herculaneum, said, "We're going to end up in court if we have to do that. We have to make sure that's the solution that works."

But the strategy, despite the clear frustration of the community, seems to be getting some results. There's no dispute that Doe Run executives feel beleaguered and are trying to take steps to allay the community's concerns, even if they believe those concerns are exaggerated. Although Doe Run is appealing the state order, the company recently announced plans to resume shipping concentrate by rail, eliminating the practice of trucking in concentrate. The smelter's also changing how trucks unload. Areas of the plant have been paved to reduce the amount of "fugitive" dust blowing off the site. Doe Run's also resurrecting a proposal to build a haul route to bypass residential areas. And Zelms says Doe Run plans to comply with an EPA order, issued Dec. 14, directing the company to speed up the remediation of yards that tested above the 400 parts per million threshold, starting with yards that tested above 2,500 ppm.

The company is also trying to win back the hearts and minds of Herculaneum's residents -- a task made more difficult because, as Shepard acknowledges, the community is different today. "We've had a number of new residents come into the community, and they didn't have the comfort level that others had and didn't have the understanding of the operations," Shepard says. "There were some ... who didn't even know there was a smelter there -- and they started hearing information and it scared them. We missed that our community had changed and we had not kept in touch with them in the way that we should have."

Zelms, who has spent his career with the lead company ("since God was 2," he quips) and has been president and CEO for nearly 20 years, says he knows the task of reassuring residents will be difficult. He says he understands that people are concerned and frightened, even if he's not. "I know that there's been lead production in Herculaneum at that smelter site for over 100 years," Zelms says. "I know that prior to that time there was lead shot produced on limestone bluffs there. I know that my wife's grandfather lived to be 93 or 94 years old and worked in that smelter -- and I know a number of individuals who have brought up families in and around Herculaneum and whose children, based on our social mores of success, have been what you or I would call a success. I know again, analytically, that there's nothing different in Herculaneum today than there was six months, a year or two years ago. I know analytically when I look at the last 10 years of the indices for lead in air and lead in blood are infinitely better than they have been previously. I know, on occasion, EPA gave us a commendation as a success story for the reduction of lead in the environment, so those are some of the things I know.

"From my perspective, from my knowledge, I would tell you if my family was there, having had that history, I do not think I would be concerned. But having said that -- there are certainly numbers of people in Herculaneum who do not have that experience, all that information at their fingerprints, and are concerned, are scared and are perfectly entitled to be concerned and scared, if for no other reason because they don't know."

Doe Run representatives attend every monthly community-advisory group meeting, where, over and over again, residents invoke the legacy of dioxin-contaminated Times Beach. They say it to regulators; they do it for the TV cameras. "Herculaneum is just like Times Beach -- Doe Run should buy out all the houses," one grandmother told Petruska last month.

But the government types say there's really no comparing the two -- one is much worse than the other.

Jordan-Izaguirre worked on Times Beach, and now she's spending most of her time on Herculaneum.

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