LEADWOOD — For generations, people in Leadwood have lived near huge piles of dangerous, lead-contaminated mining waste. Now the EPA has decided the answer to the problem is to pile on more lead-tainted earth.
To many folks, that makes no sense at all.
"They're going to bring in more dirt that's poisoned and bring it down here, and we don't want it," said Dan Rohrbach, 55, who lives near one of the piles in this town of 1,200 people. "Why are we being treated like second-class citizens?"
Under the plan, which is still being aired in public hearings and has no fixed starting date, 300,000 tons of lead-laced soil from neighboring Jefferson County will be trucked in and spread over some of Leadwood's tailings, the sandy material left over from a century of mining.
The Environmental Protection Agency, struggling with the long-standing problem of lead contamination in the slice of southeastern Missouri known as the Old Lead Belt, said that will accomplish two things: remove lead contamination from Jefferson County, and help grass grow over the tailings in Leadwood. That will fix the waste in place and keep the lead from blowing around or from washing into streams when it rains.
"What we're trying to do is consolidate the waste," said EPA Superfund project manager Jim Silver. "Right now, this lead is all over everywhere."
Much of the lead used in batteries, bullets and other products in the U.S. once came from the Old Lead Belt, about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis. At its peak in the mid-20th century, the St. Joe Lead Co. employed 5,000 people in the region before the mines dried up and the industry moved on to another lead vein farther south.
The legacy of the industry's heyday remains in piles of tailings, some of which are 30 stories high, looming over communities such as Leadwood, Leadington and Park Hills. In other places, the tailings lie flat and can cover hundreds of acres. There is far too much of the stuff to remove it or bury it.
It has been part of the landscape for generations. Children sledded down the piles, and Christmas trees were placed on top during the holidays. The tailings were also spread on icy streets and put in gardens and sandboxes.
Ignored or unknown were the risks — tailings contain 1,500 to 2,000 parts lead per million, far above levels deemed safe. In children, lead can stunt growth, lower IQ and cause other problems, though the Missouri Health Department says no studies have definitively tied lead exposure in the Old Lead Belt to such problems.
At one flat, 53-acre site in Leadwood, the EPA five years ago tried to grow grass over the tailings by allowing the spraying of treated sewage. But not much grass has grown, and because the sewage includes waste from portable toilets, the stench can be powerful.
So the agency decided to cover the tailings at that site with lead-contaminated soil — something that has already been done in Oklahoma and Kansas and at four other sites in the Old Lead Belt.
Jefferson County was not a lead mining area, but high levels of the heavy metal were found there in one yard after another several years ago. It turns out that companies selling topsoil there were getting dirt from along the Big River, which winds through the Old Lead Belt. Lead had made its way into the river and the soil surrounding it.
Residents in Leadwood, though, see the solution as worse than the original problem.
"They don't want it, and we don't want it, either," said resident Lee Butcher, 50, at a recent public hearing. "The idea that you're moving it out of Jefferson County and bringing it here doesn't make sense."
Over years, efforts to consolidate and contain the lead have had some success. A 1997 state Health Department study found 17 percent of children under age 7 in the Old Lead Belt had blood-lead concentrations exceeding national standards. By 2008, the number had fallen to 4 percent.
EPA remediation manager Jason Gunter said he realizes Leadwood residents "feel like they're being dumped on."
"But this is actually a benefit to this community," he said.