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EPA tests more homes in St. Francois County for lead pollution

A home in St. Francois County undergoing remediation for lead contamination
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
As the EPA finalizes its plan for cleaning up lead pollution in the Big River watershed, agency officials are also testing more residential properties for contamination caused by historic lead mining.

The number of homes contaminated by Missouri’s historic lead mining continues to grow as Environmental Protection Agency officials test more residential yards in St. Francois County.

EPA officials are meeting with communities this week to expand its soil sampling efforts and receive feedback on its plan to clean up the Big River Mine Tailings Superfund site. Representatives of the federal agency had their first meeting with residents on Monday in Bismarck, about 80 miles south of St. Louis. Officials found high levels of lead, or concentrations above 400 parts per million, in 96 out of the 122 residential yards they tested in Bismarck. They began testing in the city in 2014.

The site consists of residential yards, streams and areas along the Big River and Flat River that contain significant levels of lead. The area is located within the Old Lead Belt region in southeast Missouri, which has one of the world’s largest lead deposits.

“We’ve expanded our investigation to the outskirts of the county because we continue to find [contamination] the further we go,” said Jason Gunter, remedial project manager for the EPA.

More than two dozen people attended the meeting in Bismarck. Some were eager to have their property tested after hearing the presentation.

“Before this meeting, I thought we were far enough away from the source of the lead problem, but after being here, we’re really not,” said Andrea Thalmann, 77, who lives on a farm with her husband just outside of town. “We’ve got a big pond that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren swim in. So that’s very concerning to me right now.”

She’s also concerned about the quality of her water supply. While Bismarck residents receive annual water testing from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Thalmann’s home is located in an unincorporated part of the county and her home uses water from two private wells that haven’t been monitored for some time.

Others in attendance already had their property tested and wanted to ask officials what the next steps would be.

Bismarck, Missouri
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
Bismarck, Missouri

“I am the crunchy mom that doesn’t even let her kid have soda or even a lot of sugar, so I definitely don’t want lead running through her body,” said Tonya Guzman, 33.

Guzman has a 2-year-old and had her property tested last Friday. Another mother, Angie Mayberry, 41, recently received the results of the soil sampling on her property, which showed high levels of lead.

“One of my children is developmentally delayed,” Mayberry said. “I’m hopeful they’ll prioritize [cleaning up] our area.”

A fisherman walks across a "low-water crossing" on the Big River which researchers say is an ideal location to remove contaminated sediment.
Credit Kris Husted | KBIA
The EPA is taking public feedback on its proposed plan to clean up contaminated areas along Big River and Flat River.

For residential yards that show significant lead pollution, EPA’s contractor will excavate one foot deep and one acre around the house. If the levels exceed 1,200 parts per million, officials will remove another foot of soil.

The federal agency will hold another meeting at Mineral Area College in Park Hills at 6 p.m., Thursday. That meeting will focus on receiving public feedback on the EPA’s proposed strategy to clean up contaminated surface waters and floodplain soils in the Big River watershed.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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