MAC: Mines and Communities

Officials seek to ID old lead mining sites for cleanup

Published by MAC on 2007-05-05

Officials seek to ID old lead mining sites for cleanup


5th May 2007

Destiny Miller loves picking flowers in her family's backyard, climbing on her swing set and lobbing rocks into the creek that flows behind her home.

But something in the rambunctious 3-year-old's small world has been threatening her health. Nearly a year and a half ago, her parents learned that Destiny had lead poisoning.

Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Millers that soil in their 1 1/2-acre yard was contaminated with lead. The agency ordered the tainted dirt dug up and hauled away.

Since 2005, hundreds of families across rural Washington County — the Millers included — have learned that they were exposed to contaminated soil or water because of mining that once took place here.

State geologists have identified more than 9,000 places in 38 counties where lead, barite, zinc and copper once were found, and in most cases mined. By the end of next year, state and federal regulators hope to know how many more small mining sites 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 here are targeted for soil removal, and bottled drinking water is being delivered to 244 homes served by private wells that contain elevated levels of lead and other contaminants.

Destiny's mother, Kirsten Goff Miller, 33, had no clue that lead mining waste posed a danger so close to her home. Now she waits for Destiny's lead readings to drop to safe levels.

"I think about it every day," Kirsten Miller said. "And wonder why it is taking so long. I just don't understand."

Instead of towering mountains of gravelly chat or dusty tailings piles that marked many industrial lead mines in southern Missouri, Washington County is largely dotted by shallow pits and small waste piles that serve as geologic fingerprints of early surface mining.

Some of the state's earliest lead mining happened here nearly three centuries ago.

The trail of early lead mines has led to other less-likely regions of the state — including sites near Lake of the Ozarks and Springfield — where the mining heritage isn't so established.

Gene Gunn, Superfund branch chief at the EPA's regional office in Kansas City, Kan., said the region focused about half its soil-removal resources on cleanup projects such as Washington County's.

In this case, the tainted dirt will be hauled to a former Doe Run Co. mine outside of Potosi, where it will cover an old tailings pile.

Finding all the pieces

For the past few years, Cheryl Seeger has done some sleuthing as part of a joint state-EPA project to determine the extent of lead mining in Missouri.

Seeger, a state geologist, has reviewed field notes jotted down more than a century ago, in some cases, along with old manuscripts and maps — anything that might yield clues to where lead and other metallic minerals were once mined.

"I view it as a giant jigsaw puzzle," said Seeger, who is based in Rolla. "You have a bunch of different pieces — field notebooks ... volumes ... maps. You are taking all those pieces and trying to put them all together."

Suspected sites are verified by Seeger's colleagues in the field.

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.

Scarring from old mining operations has been found in neighboring Jefferson County, although it's not nearly so extensive.

Once the agencies know where to look, soil and water samples are gathered and tested for signs of lead contamination.

Mined lead ore becomes more hazardous to people after it has been exposed to the elements over time and oxidizes. Once it reaches the soil, Seeger said, lead particles can be washed through underground crevices and leach into water supplies.

Raw lead ore was originally fed into log furnaces or crude smelters, where it was molded and shipped to France. Old processing sites have contributed to Washington County contamination. Across Missouri, there are 147 former lead and zinc smelter sites.

The EPA is trying to identify companies and other parties that may have played a role in Washington County mining over the years. But agency officials acknowledge that some may be long gone. Some early miners were simply farmers trying to earn a little extra money mining surface lead on their land.

Potosi Mayor T.R. Dudley said cleaning up historic mine waste was a good thing. But in a county where unemployment is just above 10 percent, it is hard to watch so much money going toward an activity that won't stimulate the local economy.

"I don't want to be flip about it," Dudley said. "Elevated levels are elevated levels. If there is federal money to (replace) that, by all means we should tap into it."

The impact hits home

Destiny Miller bravely extends her arm every few months to have her blood drawn and tested for lead at the Washington County Health Department in Potosi.

Despite the yard cleanup, a dietary regimen that includes multivitamins with iron, and assurances the Millers' water and house are lead-free, Destiny's blood tests continue to show elevated levels of lead.

Miller and her husband, Steve Miller, learned of the problem when they sought to enroll Destiny in a private day-care center in October 2005. One of the requirements was that children be screened for lead poisoning.

Kirsten Miller said she was shocked to learn that her otherwise healthy daughter had 17 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Ten micrograms is the federal threshold for heightened concern, and Destiny's blood-lead level still hovers above that.

The finding triggered testing of the family's mobile home, yard and water. The Millers say the only place lead was found was in their yard. The Millers live near a former mining area, and a local historian told them there once was a smelter on the property.

Lorena Locke, a health educator at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the prevalence of young Washington County children with elevated levels of lead in their blood was more than twice the state average last year. Testing is voluntary, and only about one-quarter of children under age 6 in the county have been tested.

Health studies conducted on former mining sites in Jasper and St. Francois counties show there is a link between mine waste and elevated levels of lead in children.

Children are most susceptible to the harmful effects of lead poisoning. It can impair intelligence, slow growth and cause behavioral problems.

Kirsten Miller wonders whether lead is affecting her daughter's behavior.

"I guess I do have concerns because she is very hyperactive," she said. "She doesn't sit still. She is always into stuff."

Miller said the family's doctor believed Destiny had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder but didn't think lead was a factor. Miller isn't so sure.

Bobbie Casner, a mother of two, has worried since learning she lives in a "hot zone" for lead contamination. Not far from her home is a boulder marking Firmin Desloge Park "in memory of the mining families of the area."

Bottled drinking water is now delivered to the three-bedroom mobile home Casner rents on North Terk Road near Potosi. Traces of lead were found in the well.

Everybody — even the family's pets — drinks the bottled water, which has been delivered since January.

The whole family has had blood tests, Casner said, and nobody was above the threshold for lead poisoning.

Still, she said, "We're going to do everything possible to get out of here. I mean, nobody has any business being up here."

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