State looking at lead waste cleanup efforts

Friday, July 24, 2009 | 5:45 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Attorney General's office is investigating St. Francois County residents' complaints about Doe Run Co.'s efforts to clean up piles of debris left over after decades of lead mining, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said Friday.

The county was once the heart of Missouri's Old Lead Belt region that supplied much of the nation's lead. Left behind are tons of debris known as tailings, some standing 30 stories high, others spread out over several acres of land. The tailings are contaminated with lead. Exposure to lead can stunt growth of children, result in lower IQ and cause other developmental problems.

Concerns prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the region as a Superfund site. St. Louis-based Doe Run owns the old mines and is responsible for cleanup.

Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Koster, said an investigation will look at Doe Run's use of treated sewage to spur plant growth on the tailings. Residents and state Rep. Linda Fischer, D-Bonne Terre, have also complained about the pace of the remediation effort.

John Carter, manager of mining properties for St. Louis-based Doe Run, said the company has not been contacted by the attorney general's office about an investigation. But he defended the cleanup effort.

"We've done a lot down there," Carter said. "Most of our employees of the remediation program and a lot of Doe Run employees in general live there. So the company has been part of the communities there for a long time."

Of particular concern to many residents has been the effort to grow grass on a tailings pile at Leadwood. Since the tailings pile is too big to haul away, the goal is to cover it with grass so that the tailings don't blow in the wind into neighboring yards or wash into streams or rivers.

To help grass grow, Doe Run allows the spraying of treated sewage, or biosolids, which act as fertilizer on the 53-acre Leadwood site. Doe Run and the EPA say the sewage is safe, but residents who live near the site say it seeps into their yards and creates an unpleasant odor.

"Sometimes you can smell it really, really bad," said Christy Briley, whose back yard is adjacent to the Leadwood site. "When I pick up my dogs from my fenced-in yard, they smell like raw sewage."

EPA is considering an alternative to the use of biosolids: Bringing in lead-contaminated soil from nearby Jefferson County and placing it on top of the tailings pile at Leadwood. But many residents are opposed to that plan, too, saying they don't want contaminated soil from another county.

Carter blamed delays on the struggling economy, including a work force reduction earlier this year that put the remediation effort on hold. He said the company hopes to resume the work by October.

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