Precautions, fear of contamination dominate homes around the nation's largest lead smelter

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

HERCULANEUM, Mo. (AP) -- Parents here warn their children not to play in the dirt or along the curb. If they are allowed to play outside at all, their toys and swing sets are washed down first, and they have to leave their shoes on the doorstep when they come back in.

These are some of the health precautions families take in this blue-collar town where the nation's largest lead smelter has spread contamination to homes, yards and streets.

''Most people in the spring and in the fall turn on the fan. But before we turn on the fan we think, 'It's going to kick up a lot of dust,''' said Carol Miller, 38.

Of her four children, ages 3 to 12, three have health problems she attributes to the lead. The oldest has hearing problems, the 10-year-old has reading disabilities, and her youngest is stunted in his growth, she said.

This week, the federal government announced it will move hundreds of residents -- most of them in families with young children or pregnant women -- into temporary homes for months while experts carry out a multimillion-dollar cleanup and crackdown on emissions from Doe Run Co.

The smelter, with a work force of 250, is the town's major employer and the chief reason Missouri is the nation's producer of lead used in car batteries, televisions and other products.

There is nothing new about pollution in Herculaneum, a town of about 2,800 people, 30 miles south of St. Louis along the Mississippi River. The smelter's smokestack has dominated the horizon of the small river town since the 1890s, and officials have known for decades that the lead and other toxins are blown in the air and across on the ground.

In recent years, Doe Run has spent millions of dollars to reduce the pollution and clean up the contamination, and the smelter's emissions have improved, but they still fail to meet federal standards.

Yards that were dug up and replaced with new soil two years ago by Doe Run have been found to be contaminated all over again, some with far more than the residential standard of 400 parts per million. Blood tests have found many children with elevated lead levels.

Then in August, at residents' request, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources took dust samples from the road that trucks use to reach the smelter. Samples were found to contain lead in levels up to 300,000 parts per million, apparently because of a leak of lead concentrate.

The state and the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a cleanup. And Doe Run was directed to meet the federal emissions standard by July.

''It's not going to do us much good to clean up the yards if whatever is coming out of that smelter recontaminates the yards,'' said Hattie Thomas, an EPA spokeswoman.

The overall cost of the cleanup and relocation still has not been determined. The EPA will probably ask Doe Run to pay at least part.

Lead can cause brain damage in children, and adults can develop anemia, kidney disease and high blood pressure. The EPA has not definitively tied youngsters' health problems to the smelter. But many residents say there is little doubt in their minds.

Company spokeswoman Barbara Shepard said that Doe Run is ''just as concerned about the health and welfare of the residents of the community.'' But she said the temporary relocation is unnecessary, given the lack of scientific evidence.

Those who are moved out temporarily could end up living in a motel for four to six months at the EPA's expense. Many of those living close to the smelter hope Doe Run or the government will eventually buy their property and allow no more families to live here. But that is not in the plan so far.

Many parents, noting that it can take years for lead-related health problems to appear, fear the damage has already been done.

Sandie Wren said her 8-y: ''You have to live a lifetime to know if she lives a healthy life.''

And now that more is known about the contamination, some residents fear they will not be able to sell their homes.

Others worry about what would happen if they did sell.

''In good conscience, I won't sell to someone with children, or someone that could have children,'' Wren said. When people drive by looking at homes, ''I see neighbors go out and say, 'Do you have children? Then don't live here.'''



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