Leadwood, MO — The folks in this aptly named southern Missouri town know full well they’re living amid giant piles of what amounts to hazardous waste. To them, that doesn’t make the logic of trucking in tons of lead-contaminated soil from a neighboring county to cover it up sound any less ridiculous.
“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.”
But to the Environmental Protection Agency, struggling with the long-standing problem of lead contamination in the slice of southeast Missouri known as the Old Lead Belt, it makes perfect sense: Contain a century’s worth of mining waste by burying it under 300,000 tons of lead-laced soil from a nearby county.
“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.”
The basic idea isn’t unheard of. Lead-contaminated soil has been spread over piles of “tailings” — sandy material left over from the mining — in Oklahoma, Kansas and at four other sites in the Old Lead Belt. The soil fosters the growth of grass, which locks the waste in place and keeps the tailings from blowing into a gritty fog on windy days and ending up in yards of neighboring homes and schools, and from washing into streams and rivers during rain showers.
At a 53-acre site in Leadwood, a town of 1,200 residents, the EPA five years ago tried to grow grass on a flat area of tailings by allowing the spraying of biosolids from a wastewater treatment plant. Remediation manager Jason Gunter said that although only treated waste is permitted at the site, he’s found evidence of dumped raw sewage. The result: little grass and a powerful, septic stench.
So the agency decided to cover the tailings with lead-contaminated soil. But typically, such hazardous soil comes from the same area. In Leadwood, the EPA plans to truck it in from nearby Jefferson County.
That’s not a mining area, but high levels of lead 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 contamination had made its way into the river and the soil surrounding it.
“We found about 50 different trucking companies, or at least guys with dump trucks, that had been selling it to residents (in Jefferson County), not knowing it was contaminated with lead,” Silver said.
Residents in Leadwood see the solution as worse than the original problem. They’re both angered by the idea of the government dumping more lead-contaminated waste near their homes, and worried that once the first batch of Jefferson County contamination arrives, more will follow.
“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 the Leadwood pile. “Why are we being treated like second-class citizens?”
Much of the lead used in batteries, building construction, bullets, even radiation shields for X-ray machines came from the Old Lead Belt, a small area about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis. At its peak in 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 further south.
The mines are long empty, but the legacy of the region’s heyday remains in piles of tailings — some of which are 30 stories tall, looming over communities such as Leadwood, Leadington and Park Hills like giant sand dunes. In other places, the tailings lay flat and can cover hundreds of acres.
They’ve been part of the local landscape for years. Children sledded down the sides of the piles and Christmas trees were placed on top during the winter holidays. The tailings were spread on icy streets, 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, high blood lead levels can stunt growth, lower IQ and cause developmental delays.
There is far too much to remove or bury, although past remediation efforts 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 2002, the latest year for which a comparison is available, the number declined to 9 percent.
Gunter said he understands the frustration of Leadwood residents, but said the EPA’s plan is a fix for a problem that has plagued their town for decades.
“I understand they feel like they’re being dumped on,” Gunter said. “They feel that way, but this is actually a benefit to this community.”