OLD MINES — Last fall, a Washington County couple learned that soil in their yard was contaminated with lead and that their 3-year-old had lead poisoning.
Federal regulators ordered the tainted dirt dug up and hauled away.
Since 2005, hundreds of families across rural Washington County in eastern Missouri have learned that they were exposed to contaminated soil or water because of mining that once took place.
Throughout the state, more than 9,000 sites in 38 counties have been identified as places where lead and other minerals were found and often mined. State and federal regulators now are trying to determine how many more within Missouri will require further cleanup.
In Washington County alone, federal regulators plan to spend up to $8.5 million on cleanup. So far, 213 contaminated yards are targeted for soil removal, and bottled drinking water is being delivered to 244 homes served by wells that contain elevated levels of lead.
Kirsten Goff Miller, 33, had no clue that lead mining waste posed a danger so close to her home. Now she waits for her daughter Destiny’s lead readings to drop to safe levels.
“I think about it every day and wonder why it is taking so long. I just don’t understand.” she said.
Missouri is the nation’s biggest producer of lead. In two of the most prolific former mining regions — the Old Lead Belt and the Tri-State area, covering portions of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma — officials reported about 160 million tons of waste last year.
Some of the state’s earliest lead mining happened here nearly three centuries ago. Early lead mines also have been found near Lake of the Ozarks and Springfield.
A joint state-EPA project has been established to determine the extent of lead mining in Missouri.
In Washington County, the number of known places where lead and barite were found and mined has more than quadrupled.
The state’s database now shows 1,431 sites in the county, which has been separated into the Potosi, Old Mines and Richwoods areas.
Once the agencies know where to look, soil and water samples are gathered and tested for signs of lead contamination.
The EPA is trying to identify parties that may have played a role in Washington County mining over the years. But officials acknowledge that some may be long gone. Some early miners were farmers trying to earn extra money mining surface lead on their land.
Lorena Locke, a health educator at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the prevalence of Washington County children with elevated levels of lead in their blood was more than twice the state average last year.