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Toxic mound beloved in ex-mining town

The EPA wants a huge mound of waste from lead mining removed from a Missouri town, but many residents want to keep them as a reminder of their industrial past.
This 30-story high mound of coarse waste from the milling process serves as a backdrop for the eastern Missouri town of Park Hills.
This 30-story high mound of coarse waste from the milling process serves as a backdrop for the eastern Missouri town of Park Hills.James A. Finley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 others in this tiny eastern Missouri 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, given 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 81-year-old Ragsdale, so enamored with the chat “dump” dominating the view from his breakfast nook in the back of his home that he’s got 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.

River poisoned
EPA authorities say 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.

** APN ADVANCE FOR Sunday, June 12 **Elwood \"Knot\" Ragsdale, his wife, Wanda, and their 11-year-old grandson, Justin Hines, stand in their backyard with a portion of a mound of chat from the days of lead mining in town now known as Park Hills, Mo., Tuesday, May 10, 2005. In the background is a portion of the 30-story mound of waste from lead mining. Ragsdale and other long-timers along Buckley Street in the small Missouri town see the sandy-Colored mound, coarse waste from the milling process decades ago, as an old friend. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)James A. Finley / AP

Studies by various agencies — from local health departments to the EPA and federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — over at least the past decade 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 re-grading 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, a public hearing is expected this summer on the EPA’s recommendation that the huge mound be knocked down, stabilized and covered with rock, said Bruce Morrison, the agency’s project manager.

Doe Run has voiced eagerness to get the matter remedied.

“Realistically, we’re probably leaning toward the spring of next year before any construction starts,” Morrison said. But “there is going to be something done with it; it is not going to go by the wayside.”

Despite the stumping along Buckley Street for the status quo, Sam Mason is among those who can’t wait to get the mountain remediated, if only to protect 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.”

Symbol of richer days
But to many along Buckley Street, 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.

Residents often sledded or used the mound as their childhood playgrounds long ago. Many 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, sand boxes 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.

Down the street, 25-year-old Adam Cureton smokes a cigarette outside the 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.

Nearby, Juanita Monie, an asthmatic, has learned to live with the dust.

“Here I am 76 years old and I’ve been raised with this chat dump. I’ve lived a good life ... 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, 52, can understand the sentiment but notes that the heap may be blunting the town’s growth by discouraging would-be residents.

“Do I want to keep the heritage? Yes,” he said. “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.”