Jim Suhr, Associated Press
HERCULANEUM, Mo. — 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.
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 has increasingly has 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 even 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.
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