Recreationists, environmentalists wary of EPA's cleanup plan for rivers in Old Lead Belt
About 55 miles southwest of St. Louis, Steven Anderson — who owns an outfitter called Cherokee Landing in Bonne Terre — routinely takes his customers to St. Francois State Park.
To a trained observer like Anderson, the beach where he launches his kayak trips offers clear signs of lead contamination. Before taking off recently, he scooped up a handful of gravel.
“See these gray and black specks?” he said, pointing at the tiny dark rocks in his hand. “There’s a lot of heavy tailings on this beach.”
The tailings are discarded mine waste from the lead mining that long took place in St. Francois County. The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan to clean up the waste along the Big River, which runs through the heart of Missouri's Old Lead Belt.
But Anderson and other residents worry that the EPA's plan to clean up parts of the Big River, the Flat River and nearby streams will disrupt recreation. Environmental groups fear that the strategy won’t be effective enough to protect people and wildlife from pollution.
The Old Lead Belt, which is mainly located in St. Francois County, contained the world’s largest concentration of galena, a type of lead ore. St. Joseph Lead Company — which later became Doe Run — ran major lead- and zinc-mining operations from 1864 until 1972. But over many decades, tailings from St. Joe’s operations spread through parts of east-central Missouri, making the area one of the largest Superfund sites in the country.
The EPA’s likely plan will focus on removing contaminated sediment over the course of 12 years. The $23 million proposal calls for reducing lead concentrations in sediments along the rivers and a number of beaches in St. Francois State Park. In some areas, the agency aims to cut levels down to 581 parts per million and others down to 1,200 parts per million.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is petitioning for lower concentrations, given that the EPA’s standard for soils where children play in is 400 parts per million.
“There are kids playing on [state park] beaches, so we’re just concerned that the targets they’ve put forward, based on EPA’s own thresholds for risk, they’re just not aggressive enough,” said Maisah Khan, water policy coordinator at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
The group also argues that wildlife will not be adequately protected either, citing a U.S. Geological Survey report that showed how mussels in Big River could be harmed by very low concentrations of lead. The EPA used a crustacean called the hyalella azteca — a species often used to determine safe concentrations of mine waste — to determine lead levels in the report.
Several of the locations the agency wants to remediate are along Cherokee Landing’s routes. Anderson says the work could drive regular customers away.
“People like to have a serene float and not have a bunch of Caterpillar ‘dozers and stuff sitting along the side and the whole thing looking like a construction zone,” Anderson said.
Cleaning up the river without interfering too much with recreation will be challenging, said Jason Gunter, remedial project manager for the Big River Mine Tailings Superfund site.
“If you’re in a public-use area, you have to time your remediation around any of the recreational activities that are going on, if you can,” Gunter said. “It’s something we’re going to have to take into consideration. We may have to do this work in the colder time of the year.”
Cherokee Landing’s business has already been affected by an earlier attempt to clean up Big River. A couple years ago, Cherokee Landing had to stop offering 11-mile trips because the EPA built a series of rock-based dams called the Newberry Riffle. Agency officials intended for the project to collect contaminated sediment, but it made river conditions unsafe for boaters.
Anderson said he wasn’t aware of the Newberry Riffle project until people boating along Big River informed him. Jay Doty, a landscape architect who formerly worked for Doe Run, was one of those people.
“I’m paddling along, and I come around this bend and see a bunch of earth-moving equipment,” Doty said. “I’m coming up in a fully loaded kayak, and a guy in a hard hat says, ‘You’re lucky you came through today. If you came next week, you wouldn’t have been able to get through.’”
While Doty said he wants to see Big River cleaned up, he doesn’t think the EPA’s proposal is the right strategy.
“[The Big River] is the best-kept secret in Missouri,” Doty said. “I think it should be celebrated rather than destroyed. The EPA should figure out how to do the work without sacrificing the Big River.”
The EPA’s proposal also includes stabilizing 4,000 feet of eroding riverbanks to keep contaminated sediments from falling and spreading into Big River. While the method has not been clearly described in the plan, environmental groups expect agency officials to use rocks to stabilize the riverbanks, which they say is expensive and unappealing. Instead, they’re hoping the EPA will consider a bioengineering approach that uses deep-rooted native plants and natural materials found near the site to prevent erosion.
In the last year, the approach has been used to restore Elk River in southwest Missouri and a former ballfield along LaBarque Creek, located south of Pacific. Nature Conservancy scientist Steve Herrington showed how the LaBarque Creek site — once bare and eroded — had transformed into an area full of tall, lush grasses near a sparkling stream, teeming with tiny fish.
“Even though we had three flood events, where the stream got out of the bank out onto the floodplain, [there’s been] no erosion whatsoever,” Herrington said.
The same work could be replicated in the Big River, said Barbara Charry, Nature Conservancy’s lower Meramec River coordinator.
“We want to hold that lead in place very efficiently and get all these benefits for people and wildlife for people at the same time,” Charry said. “We don’t want to create a very stark landscape with lots of rock.”
Steven Anderson, the outfitter owner in Bonne Terre, also worries the EPA’s work will change Big River’s appearance. Decades of mine waste have already taken its toll on the river.
“It’s not natural to have this stuff here, anyway; that’s why it’s gotta go,” Anderson said. “So I can see cleaning it up in the park and those beaches, but I can also see [the EPA] screw it up, dig back too far and ruin the whole bank. They could ruin the whole look of it for years until [plants] grow back.”
The EPA is taking feedback on its initial plan to clean up rivers and streams through Thursday. In the coming years, the agency will draw up a more comprehensive plan for remediating the watershed in the Big River Superfund site.
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