100 Families Leaving Tainted Town For Cleanup

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 20 Jan 2002
Time: 01:20:20
Remote Name:


NATIONAL 100 Families Leaving Tainted Town for Cleanup

Mo., Jan. 18 - Carol Miller's family lives in the world of no. No playing on the swing set until someone washes off the black dust. No barbecues at Grandma's, where the view from the picnic table is of an enormous slag pile. No digging in the backyard. No using the ceiling fan or opening windows in the Millers' cramped house here in the shadow of the nation's largest lead smelter, whose 550-foot smokestack towers over this Mississippi River town 30 miles south of St. Louis. "I did not choose to be a mother this way," said Mrs. Miller, who attributes the hearing loss, attention deficit and stunted growth of her four children, ages 3 to 12, to the heightened levels of lead in their blood. "A lot of it's, `No, don't touch this, don't touch that,' " she said. "Can you imagine a nice pretty spring day, you want that nice fresh air? But then you look at the stack, and you say no." The Millers are one of about 100 families waiting to be temporarily relocated by the Environmental Protection Agency in a huge cleanup already under way here in Herculaneum, a working-class town of 2,800 people where one-fourth of children under 6 were recently found to have lead poisoning. But they, and many others, say spending a few months in a motel while their lawns and living rooms are decontaminated is insufficient. These residents want the smelter's owner, the Doe Run Company, to buy them out of their homes, whose property values are inversely related to the lead levels in the streets, the soil, the children. The relocation, offered to families that have pregnant women or young children, renews decades-old questions over the dangers of lead, which is believed to hamper intelligence and contribute to kidney failure. People here believe it is also responsible for clusters of brain cancer and multiple sclerosis around town. Developments in Herculaneum reflect in part a change in attitudes that frequently accompanies the transformation of the Midwest's industrial belt, as company towns like this one evolve into bedroom communities of commuters. Whispers about lead pollution have circulated for generations in Herky, as the town is known, where smelter employees once numbered 1,000, lived in company-owned homes and charged groceries against their paychecks at the company store. But it was only after a strike that broke the union a decade ago, and the dwindling of jobs at the plant to 250, that the bonds of corporate loyalty frayed enough for people to sue the company and speak out to the local press. Previously, "your neighbors worked there, relatives of neighbors worked there, and pushing the issue would put them out of a job," said Leslie Warden, an alderwoman who went to high school in Herky and bought a house two blocks from the smelter in 1991. "A lot of people now are thinking: `That's all well and good, but what are the consequences? Are we sacrificing our children's health and our parents' health for this company?' " Nationally, temporary relocations for lead contamination and other environmental problems are not infrequent, although having to move so large a portion of a small town is rare, particularly when, as in Herculaneum, the danger was so long suspected. Perhaps the best-known examples of relocations stemming from contamination by toxic chemicals were those at Love Canal, the upstate New York community where 710 families were evacuated in 1978, and Times Beach, Mo., less than an hour's drive northwest of here, which in 1982-83 was abandoned by its residents, more than 2,000 in all. Doe Run, a subsidiary of the Renco Group Inc., a privately owned diversified holding company based in New York, has 6,000 employees and $700 million in annual sales worldwide. It has spent $15 million in the last year to clean up Herculaneum, where its smelter produces 160,000 tons of lead a year. It has reduced emissions from the stack to a projected 34 tons this year, from 81 tons in 2001 and 800 tons annually a generation ago. After local streets tested as high as 30 percent lead, the company also started operating a street sweeper daily and recently agreed to haul its ore by rail instead of trucks. It has given 426 residents high-performance vacuum cleaners and, under direction from the E.P.A. and the Missouri Natural Resources Department, is systematically replacing contaminated soil in the town's 535 parcels. On Main Street, where signs are posted warning children not to play even on curbs, an excavator worked today in the yard of a house with a toddler's car seat on the porch. A few doors away, orange netting lay over the dug-up soil to mark contamination below. Farther up the hill, a lawn decontaminated last week was strewn with fresh straw. "That was one of the reasons we bought the house-it's got a great backyard; now they can't play in it," Catherine Malugen said of her children, ages 3 and 7, and the three- bedroom brick house the family bought for $112,000 in May 2000, just a year before the contamination issue erupted in a growing public debate. "We can't sell it. Who wants to buy it? Would you buy it?" Doe Run has purchased 60 local homes in the last decade, and 24 more families have asked to be bought out in the last year. The company has been working with regulators for years to ease the problem of contamination; no one here seems to know why the issue has heated up so over the course of the last six months. In any event, the company sees no reason for people to move out or for the E.P.A.'s temporary relocation of some of them, which Doe Run will most likely be asked to pay for. "We're focused on the cleanup; that's where we're spending our money," said Barbara Shepard, a company spokeswoman. "We're part of that community, we've been a part of that community for a number of years, it's our intention to continue to be part of that community. The majority of the people recognize it's a good place to live, and they want to stay." Indeed, Betty Black, who has lived near the plant for 24 years, lets her grandchildren, and the children for whom she baby-sits daily, play outside with no more precautions than buttoning jackets against the cold. Her soil was replaced last summer. "They're bending over backwards to clean up the town," Mrs. Black said of the company, noting that its $750,000 a year in property taxes kept local schools operating. "There are a couple of people in this town who are radicals; their mouths are always going. They're out to get what they can from Doe Run." About 4 percent of children across the country have lead poisoning, defined as having at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. (The average level, for people ages 1 to 70, is 2.3 micrograms.) But the rate of poisoned children is much higher in many places, including St. Louis, a city where it is about as high as Herculaneum's, largely because of lead paint in older buildings. For the Millers, who bought their house 13 years ago, lead is laced through daily life. Opening bottles of Sunny Delight for breakfast this morning, 3-year-old Jesse said he needed to test it for lead. Before sitting down to Cream of Wheat and toast, Joey, 12, held his littlest brother over the sink to wash hands, a ritual repeated before and after each meal. When Carol's husband, Joe, caught a big catfish in nearby Joachim Creek last summer, they did not eat it, for fear of contamination. Joey is not allowed to sign up for Little League, because of the lead in the local park. The children spend many hours parked in front of PlayStation; when they visit Mr. Miller's mother half a mile away, they watch cartoons instead of riding bikes. The family is eager to be relocated, though the children are reluctant to leave friends and two cats, Callie and Felix. Like others, the Millers are also wary of returning, fearful of recontamination. They hope to learn at a community meeting next Tuesday where they would go, when they would leave and how long they would stay. After struggling to follow all the lead-related rules, Mrs. Miller is now worried about the safety of sending her children to school in a taxicab from their temporary home. And if they end up in a motel, she wonders, how will she keep Jesse, not yet 4, from falling into the pool? John Peterson Myers, Ph.D. www.OurStolenFuture.org <http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/>

Last changed: August 28, 2006