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Lead smelter's pending exodus leaves Missouri town conflicted

Saturday, December 11, 2010 | 5:08 p.m. CST
Doe Run Co.'s lead smelter seen in Herculaneum, Mo. The company's plans to close the smelter, the nation's biggest, relieves some who are concerned about pollution associated with the plant. Others worry about the financial fallout from losing the plant's 270 jobs and tax revenue.

HERCULANEUM — The sprawling green space across from the Catholic church might be Herculaneum's prettiest asset, the kind of inviting place where people could flock to picnic or sling a Frisbee — if potential danger didn't lurk in the grass and ground.

That land, fenced off and marked by warning signs, once had a collection of homes and businesses. Each was bought up and systematically cleared by the owner of the lead smelter blamed for tainting the area with the toxic metal.

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Letting the property sit empty is the kind of adjustment residents have made in the Mississippi River community of 3,600, where the nation's biggest smelter and worries about the pollution that the century-old facility emits mean people sometimes wash their hands more often and leave their shoes outside.

Yet soon, those concerns may scatter to the wind. Owner Doe Run Co., after years of grappling with the Environmental Protection Agency, plans to shutter the smelter by the end of 2013. Even as the cause of their health risks will be gone, people fear the loss of hundreds of jobs — Doe Run is Herculaneum's biggest employer — and millions in tax revenue, along with the grim prospect that they could be left with homes no one will buy.

"In my heart of hearts, I would like to see the jobs and the process stay, but I don't want anything that endangers the people of Herculaneum," said Larry O'Leary, a member of the community group that has monitored Doe Run's pollution.

The plant, dating to 1892, is the nation's only primary lead smelter, the place where heat helps extract from raw ore the lead used in such things as car batteries, computer screens and X-ray shields. Doe Run figures its future may rest in the technology of a heatless, liquid process it says can cull lead from the ore virtually free of emissions.

Doe Run hasn't said if it's leaving town for good, taking with it the 270 jobs and millions of dollars in taxes it contributes locally and to the state each year. The company warns that if it closes the smelter without replacing it, the U.S. risks becoming dependent on China and other countries for its primary lead metal. Chief Operating Officer Jerry Pyatt said the company is weighing whether to build the new processing site and, if so, where — with Herculaneum a possibility.

"I prefer they stay. If they do, they probably are going to buy our property," the Rev. Bob Fleiter said, as turf belonging to the Catholic Church of the Assumption — in the shadow of the smelter's smokestack — was being resodded for the second time, courtesy of Doe Run. "If we got a fair price for the church, we'd have been out of here yesterday."

Doe Run has drawn citizen lawsuits and increasingly grappled with the EPA about its ability to contain the lead, which in low levels early in life can affect learning, IQ and memory in children. The toxic metal can also cause cardiovascular, blood pressure and kidney problems in adults. At times the EPA deemed the pollution severe enough that families were asked to take measures such as washing children's toys if they were used outdoors.

Over the past three decades, the EPA has cited Doe Run for air emissions, lead dust in homes, and elevated levels of the metal in yards and children's blood. The standards got tougher two years ago, the result of a lawsuit by a Missouri environmental coalition on behalf of two former Herculaneum residents. The federal government changed its standards for the permissible amount of lead in the air for the first time in three decades, making them 10 times stricter.

Doe Run figures it has done its part over the past decade or so having bought out 130 residential properties near the smelter and replacing the soil at more than 500 homes. Much of that property has been transformed into the off-limits green space. As part of a potentially $65 million settlement with the EPA, Doe Run also agreed to pay a $7 million fine for pollution violations, with the money split equally between the federal government and the state for regional schools. And the company will establish trust funds of tens of millions of dollars to clean up its sites in Herculaneum and elsewhere in southeast Missouri.

O'Leary credits the company for its cleanup efforts and trying to meet the EPA's air pollution guidelines. He wouldn't mind Doe Run staying — if it turns to cleaner lead processing, which he hopes could stoke local economic development some believe the pollution flap has stifled in a town with a coveted place along a freeway, rail lines and the Mississippi River.

But what's to be done with the smelter property? Pyatt says Doe Run has spent more than $500,000 in the past two years studying that, with some concluding it'd be a great spot for a Midwest port. Doe Run's deal with the EPA calls for the company to comprehensively clean up the site after it closes. And there's the prospect that the property — and plant — could be used for something else.

Stan Stratton, head of the school district that includes Herculaneum, worries about losing most or all of Doe Run's $500,000 yearly contribution to the district's $13 million operating budget. The company's possible exodus could mean the district might have to renege on its promise to its patrons two years ago that their taxes wouldn't rise if they signed off on a bond issue paying for $12 million in upgrades to the high school and a grade school.

"It's just going to put a bigger burden on the rest of taxpayers," he says, and perhaps force more cuts in a district that last year had to jettison a handful of staff positions.

Just a couple of blocks from the smelter, Lisa Price lives in the only occupied house on the street after Doe Run snapped up the nearby properties with buyouts the Prices opted not to take, thinking the company's offer wasn't sufficient. She knows she may not get another offer from Doe Run, and that the house may be unsellable.

Yet she counts her blessings. Routine tests on lead levels in her blood have come back negative, and there are no young children — the most vulnerable to lead exposure — who romp around in her yard, which Doe Run replaced a few years ago.

"It doesn't bother me — I don't eat the dirt," she said as a big truck rumbles its way to the smelter. "What drives me nuts is that (Doe Run) workers speed during shift changes."


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