Smelting town warned of contamination by lead, cadmium

Sunday, September 2, 2001

HERCULANEUM, Mo. -- "Extremely high" levels of lead and cadmium have been found on streets leading to the Doe Run Co. lead smelter, prompting federal warnings that residents avoid walking there until the contamination has been cleared.

Hattie Thomas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's community involvement coordinator, said recent testing of dust found along the main route for trucks coming to and from the smelter showed elevated levels of lead and cadmium, a metallic byproduct of lead smelting.

Officials declined to release an exact figure on the levels, pending further testing.

"The levels are extremely high," said Denise Jordan-Izaguirre, of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "There would be a severe risk if kids were sitting in the streets and playing in the dust and gravel that were found."

The smelter, along the Mississippi River about 30 miles south of St. Louis, is the nation's largest lead-production site and the largest employer in this city of about 2,800.

Center of economy

For more than a century, the smelter has been the city's economic engine and benefactor. Yet, as it has helped power the economy, it has also saturated parts of Herculaneum with lead and other toxic substances.

For decades, state and federal officials have known that the plant has filled the air and saturated Heculaneum's soil with lead dust and other pollutants dangerous to locals, especially young children.

Tests last year showed that 15 percent of the children who lived near the smelter had lead poisoning, which has been linked to behavioral problems, shortened attention spans, learning difficulties and decreased intelligence.

Thomas said state and federal officials had entered an agreement with Doe Run to remove the tainted dust with vacuum trucks and street washers, with Doe Run expecting the cleanup to begin this weekend. Doe Run reached an agreement with the same regulators this year to cut air emissions and replace lead-tainted soil.

Dan Vornberg, Doe Run's vice president for environmental affairs, said the company changed from rail to trucks to haul materials to and from the smelter about three years ago. Officials say the trucks usually are covered with tarpaulins, and Vornberg said he was unaware of a problem of dust in the streets.

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