Park Hills neighbors defend towering pile of mining waste

Monday, May 16, 2005

PARK HILLS, Mo. -- You won't hear Elwood "Knot" Ragsdale or many others along Buckley Street call the mining waste towering 30 stories above their homes a neighborhood eyesore, a wind-swept legacy of the community's bygone days of keeping the nation supplied with lead.

Ragsdale and other long-timers in the tiny community consider the massive, sandy-colored mound -- coarse waste from the milling process decades ago -- an old friend.

Never mind that many of their back yards abut the gritty heap, or the concerns that dust from such waste known as chat could cause health problems or taint local waterways with heavy metals.

As federal environmentalists now press for a lead-producing giant to clean up the massive piles here and in nearby towns, folks along Buckley -- the people perhaps most directly affected by the waste because of their proximity to it -- are waxing nostalgic about living in the heap's shadow.

Let it be, they say.

"We'd be lost without it," insists Ragsdale, 81, so enamored of the chat "dump" dominating the view from his breakfast nook in the back of his home that he has a sign there reading, "Knot's 'Dump' Side Cafe."

If the Environmental Protection Agency gets its way, Ragsdale may have to rename the eating spot.

The agency says wind blows the loose chat airborne, at times carrying lead and zinc contamination to adjacent properties.

Around this 8,000-resident town about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis -- the heart of Missouri's old Lead Belt region -- the EPA says wind and storm-water runoff has tainted the Flat River, prompting state-issued warnings about consuming fish from the waterway because of elevated lead levels found in several species.

Studies have shown high lead levels in children in some towns in the region. Such elevated levels of exposure in young children can slow their growth, lower IQ and cause behavioral problems.

Citing the contamination, the EPA in March ordered St. Louis-based Doe Run Co. -- the nation's leading lead producer -- to clean up the area's chat piles by regrading them, then covering them with rock and soil. The agency also ordered air monitoring and surface-runoff sampling.

In recent years, Doe Run has been whittling down a handful of mountainous piles of lead waste inherited from its predecessor. In Park Hills' case, the company will have a year to complete the project after the EPA approves the remediation plan. The company has voiced eagerness to comply.

Despite the stumping along Buckley Street for the status quo, Sam Mason is among those here who can't wait to get the mountain remediated, if anything in the health interests of children.

"Whether people want it or not is irrelevant; the EPA has said something has to be done," said Mason, the former head of the now-disbanded St. Francois County Mine Waste Coalition. "The pile has to be remediated -- no ifs, ands or buts about it."

Along Buckley Street, the status quo would suit folks just fine.

To many, the heap helping define the landscape symbolizes richer days when the mining industry employed some 5,000, only to shut down the last mine around here in 1972 and move south to another lead vein around Viburnum.

Those along Buckley Street often sledded or romped the mound as their childhood playgrounds long, long ago. Many residents let their children and grandkids trudge up it now. Tracks from motorized dirt bikes and four-wheelers are visible in the mound.

The community has spread the tailings on icy streets, at times using it in driveways, foundations, sandboxes and gardens. For years, the Lion's Club stuck a Christmas tree up there, even lighting it by stretching electrical cord all the way up.

Born in a house along Buckley the year the U.S. entered World War II, Clarence Dixon says the chat pile across from his home doesn't bother him -- aside from the dust he routinely clears from his coffee table or dashboard.

To him, the heap is a help, even blocking the north wind.

"I grew up on that thing," often having even camped atop it, he says. "I'd just as soon they leave it there. It's not bothering anybody."

Down the street, 25-year-old Adam Cureton smokes a cigarette outside the Buckley house he bought just last year free of worries about the chat pile or its possibly hazardous exposure to his children, ages 4 and 3. The kids have been tested for lead exposure, he insists, and they're just fine.

"I don't see no big concern," he says, crediting the mountain backing up to his back yard with privacy. "I like it there, and it'd be kind of weird without it."

Nearby, Juanita Monie fondly recalls when her husband, who died in February, used to carry the grandkids up the chat pile she now thanks for saving the neighborhood from a lot of storms.

Though asthmatic, she has learned to live with the dust. All told, she would hate to have the heap gone.

"Here I am 76 years old and I've been raised with this chat dump. I've lived a good life and it hasn't bothered me. It hasn't killed me yet," he said. "I'd just as soon it stay."

Having lived in Park Hills the past seven years, Mason can understand the sentiment but notes that the heap may blunting the town's growth by discouraging would-be residents.

"Do I want to keep the heritage? Yes," said Mason, 52. "Sure, people come off the highway to look at these things. I might want to go look at Love Canal, too, but I'm not going to live there."


On the Net:

City of Park Hills, http://parkhillsmo.brick.net

Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov

Doe Run Co., http://www.doerun.com

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