Residents in the Frankclay and Wortham communities will be included in a lawsuit over the cleanup of the Leadwood chat pile after all.
Robert Bowcock and Erin Brockovich announced the change in plans at a meeting Tuesday night to discuss their ongoing investigation of the environmental impact of the Leadwood chat pile.
“We feel there is evidence to bring them in as well,” Bowcock said.
“We feel like we have our arms around the problem now. We understand what is going on. We understand the direction it will be taking. And after that, then we will go to the other piles.”
Bowcock said he would no longer play “he-said, she-said” games related to what had been dumped on the piles. Questions about the types and safety of biosolid wastes used to fertilize vegetation on the piles was the original reason they were asked to help investigate the Leadwood chat pile cleanup, but the activists feel it is a distraction to the real issue. They want to focus on the health impact of potential lead exposure to children that the uncovered piles present.
Dust and runoff are carrying lead-contaminated mining wastes into surrounding yards. Chat has been used as agricultural lime and for snow removal. And children are playing in dirt with lead levels above the recommended action levels set by the EPA.
“The children of Leadwood are the most immediately impacted,” he said.
“I have been in this community for many days and watched them play around this community. You love your kids and there is a lot of Little Tykes equipment around.”
Bowcock said they sampled a number of areas Tuesday afternoon to see what the lead levels were. Several residents reported they’d been told their yards were clean by the Doe Run Company and later independent tests showed their yards were above the 400 ppm action level.
Bowcock had on hand a poster of a child named Chase covered in dirt that he said was 10,000 ppm for lead. He said the swing set where the child plays tested at 5,400 ppm and the area where he was bicycling was 10,000.
“We’ve gotta get our arms around this and it is not about Doe Run sneaking in a port-a-potty,” he said. “What I care about is Chase.
“Getting Chase in to see a doctor, getting Chase’s blood lead levels checked. He may not have a high level, but I want to find out.”
Brockovich told the audience that she was not there to make choices for them. “This is your health and this is your family,” she said. “I am here to give you information. I believe that awareness is our weapon and prevention is the key to the future. You cannot protect yourself in the absence of information. I am here to share that information with everyone. It is an open forum.”
Since the movie made about her, she has dealt with contamination by industry in many other communities. “The movie Erin Brockovich wasn’t about me,” she said. “It is about every man, woman and child.”
She urged the community to unite and work together on the issues presented by the mining wastes present in the community. “Everyone tonight needs to stand together,” she said. “Let your common sense work for you and decide collectively what you want to do. This isn’t about what industry said. This is about what’s right and wrong.”
She said they would soon circulate questionnaires to determine if there are any widespread health issues the community is experiencing as part of their ongoing investigation.
Bowcock said each person at the meeting needs to turn to their neighbor and ask if they are in, meaning in the lawsuit. The legal action is being handled by Wagstaff and Cartmell LLP in Kansas City.
Those who have questions about the proceedings may reach the law firm at 816-531-2372.
In addition to discussing individual situations related to the chat pile, the attorneys can review access agreements to ensure the fine print doesn’t contain any unwelcome surprises, such as restrictions on future land use that might prevent the sale to anyone with children, Brockovich said.
Several residents spoke at the meeting to share their personal experiences and concerns. One said she had had produce from her garden tested and found that some of it was taking up lead, cadmium and arsenic. This is an area in which little study has been done. She said the garden soil where she grew the vegetables was 150 ppm, which is below the EPA action level. She stopped using the produce from the garden and her children’s blood-lead levels dropped.
Another woman said her children were exposed to lead that caused them permanent damage and urged all residents to have their children tested and take seriously the recommendations of the health department for preventing exposure.
A primary recommendation is to have children wash their hands before eating so that they do not ingest any dirt that might be contaminated.
A nutritious diet high in vitamins is also supposed to be helpful.
“Once you know your yard is contaminated, you need to take steps to protect your family,” Brockovich said. A number of handouts were available at the meeting to help residents with that. The St. Francois County Health Department also has extensive information about that and can test children’s blood lead levels.
John Carter with the Doe Run Company was present at the meeting. He said afterward that he is proud of the work the company is doing in St. Francois County. “Doe Run is a member of the community and we have been since 1864,” he said. “We have employees and past employees who live in that area. We are doing the right kind of work and it is being done according to an EPA-approved plan. Doe Run is doing the right thing for the community and we are doing it to protect human health and the environment.”
Bowcock said the yard removals have been done haphazardly and that dust control and storm water runoff is not being controlled as it should be.
Carter said the soil removals have been done according to an EPA-approved plan.
“The plans are prepared and presented to EPA and DNR,” he said. “They review them, put them out for public comment. All of those things are available for people in the community to look at. We are doing it just the way EPA does it themselves and they are there making sure we do it right. They come in behind us and test.
“I have no idea how they tested the yards to get the results they got. I do know what we have done has been as per EPA method. We will wait to see what the EPA testing of the school shows.”
Carter said the EPA requires Doe Run to sample any playground equipment areas in a yard, as well as take samples from the left front, right front and the left and right rear areas of the home.
These samples are then mixed together to homogenize them. This is the standard method for soil tests.
Carter added the company did return to some yards, but that was not because of re-contamination. The EPA wanted them to address yards with more critically high levels of lead, above 2,000 ppm in the drip lines, first. Then they came back to address yards with lower levels.
“We went through and did a whole lot of drip zones knowing we’d have to go back and do them under the second action after the time critical was done,” Carter said. “I am proud of the work we are doing. I think Doe Run is doing a good job. I personally wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
Renee Jean is assistant managing editor for the Daily Journal and may be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 117 or firstname.lastname@example.org