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End of an era as smelter closes in Missouri town

HERCULANEUM, Mo.

From the day its founder arrived here, this Mississippi River town has been tied inseparably to lead, the heavy, dull-gray metal that has been mined in southern Missouri for more than two centuries.

As home to the nation's only primary lead smelter, Herculaneum processes raw ore into metal to make car batteries, X-ray shields and many other products.

But the end of that long tradition is in sight for the small town 25 miles south of St. Louis that began smelting when this land was still owned by Spain. The company that runs the smelter, Doe Run Co., has decided to cease most operations at the end of the year, citing rising regulatory costs.

Lead has been both kind and cruel to Herculaneum, giving it an identity and ready jobs, but also creating environmental and health concerns so worrisome that the federal government designated it a Superfund site and ordered tons of contaminated dirt to be dug up and removed. Many of the town's children were found to have dangerously high lead levels in their blood.

Leslie and Jack Warden won't miss the smelter. For 16 years, the couple lived less than three blocks away, literally in the shadow of the plant's 550-foot smokestack. They raised their son there. Now 29, Eric Warden still suffers from developmental delays — a common effect of lead poisoning.

"I guess living there, you became pretty complacent about the dust, the fog, the smells," Leslie Warden said. "It clung to the house. It was almost like a sticky dust."

The Wardens were leaders of the effort to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to assess Herculaneum's air quality in 2001. That testing was the impetus behind the move to clean up lead in the town known by locals as "Herky."

"We didn't do what we did to shut the plant down," Leslie Warden said. "We wanted the children of Herculaneum to be safe from lead."

Herculaneum's history dates to 1798, when a settler from Connecticut named Moses Austin obtained a Spanish land grant after learning of the region's mineral deposits. He began mining and producing lead almost immediately.

By the mid 1800s, southeast Missouri was known as the "Lead Belt" for its rich deposits. Herculaneum's standing was enhanced when the St. Joseph Lead Co. picked it as the site for a huge smelter, which opened in 1892 to extract lead from ore.

Lead paint and leaded gasoline were phased out long ago, but lead is still used in many everyday products.

In 1994, St. Louis-based Doe Run bought the operation and with it the risks of a business that was the focus of growing health concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lead can damage the brain and nervous system, and young children are especially susceptible. For adults, lead can affect the nervous system and cause kidney and cardiovascular problems.

Mass exodus

The EPA testing showed high levels of air pollution, and more than half of preschool-age children living near the smelter had elevated levels of lead. Signs soon went up urging parents to keep their kids from playing on streets and in parks.

Today, much of the area around the plant is vacant and fenced-in, with posted warnings about the presence of lead. A few homes still stand near the smelter, but most are unoccupied, used only by police and fire departments for training.

After the smelter closes, Doe Run has agreed to spend more than $8 million more for cleanup of the property, EPA spokesman David Bryan said. The company has already spent at least $26 million. The company's cleanup efforts have helped. State testing this year found no Herculaneum children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

Doe Run decided to close the plant in 2010, briefly reconsidered, then confirmed its original plan to shut down, citing increasingly strict air pollution standards.

"The cost of the factory in the current economic and environmental climate just put the company at too much risk," Hughes said.

End of an era as smelter closes in Missouri town 12/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 8:31pm]
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