‘Don’t stay quiet’ — and other lessons Herculaneum’s cleanup offers decades later
In a country with more than 1,300 Superfund sites, the challenges related to remediating environmental contamination across the U.S. can feel monumental. But Steve Mahfood remembers what happened two decades ago in the small town of Herculaneum, Missouri, as a striking success — and a story that still offers lessons for today.
Mahfood, who was the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources at the time, credits concerned residents, government officials and then-Gov. Bob Holden for banding together to hold the Doe Run Company accountable for decades of illegal lead emissions.
“It really was a matter at the time of the citizens, and citizen advocacy, really [driving] the initial thinking about what was going on in Herculaneum. … We have so many problems in Missouri with Superfund sites and formerly contaminated sites,” Mahfood said Friday on St. Louis on the Air. “But this was one where there was an untold amount of lead contamination, and it was so obvious. And it was obvious that a lot of things had not been done up to that point.”
After a 2002 report by the state health department showed highly elevated blood lead levels in well over half of the children living near Doe Run’s smelter, state officials worked to negotiate a buyout of 160 homes within about a mile of the smelter — paid for by Doe Run. Such a buyout “had never happened in the country before that,” Mahfood said. And he suspects it hasn’t happened since.
In operation since 1892, the smelter in Herculaneum was part of a “lead legacy” in Missouri that goes back centuries.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the lead that was used to mold Napoleon's bullets, and his conquering of countries in Europe, came from Missouri,” Mahfood told host Sarah Fenske. He said it wasn’t until 1978 that any real regulations were put in place around air pollution from lead.
By the time Holden appointed Mahfood to lead the state’s Department of Natural Resources, he was intimately familiar with the dangers of lead. His grandparents’ farm in the Ozarks was situated near a lead smelter. “It became really clear that something was wrong,” he said, when the farm animals started dying.
“So I carried that with me,” Mahfood said. When concerned citizens in Herculaneum began speaking out about the problem, they had his immediate attention. “We had to figure some way out to get this company to take action.”
Mahfood described how his state agency sought to raise awareness of the problem — and put Doe Run on notice.
“We did things like put signs on the street saying, ‘Don’t come out onto the street, because it’s contaminated,’ which upset a lot of the citizens in Herculaneum, but then alerted people in the state and nationally that this was an extremely important problem when you can’t walk in the streets or let your kids go out because of potential for lead contamination,” Mahfood said. “We then started doing surveillance activities with the company to try to get them to think that we were surveilling them at a really high level, [even though] we didn’t have the physical resources.”
He added that the cleanup was not perceived as a political issue.
“It was an issue of what’s right, what is the right thing to do,” Mahfood recalled. “There were people from all different political backgrounds and ages and approaches.”
Twenty years later, Mahfood doubts that the same action could be taken “given the divisiveness in our country.” That’s despite his strong conviction that the children growing up in Herculaneum are better off as a result of the cleanup there.
“I’m sure everything would get politicized,” he said.
In 2008, Mahfood was among those who pushed the U.S. for improved lead emissions standards, and the Environmental Protection Agency adopted new standards that eventually drove the Doe Run smelter out of business entirely.
A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources reached out Friday noting that cleanup of the Herculaneum smelter site continues under the EPA and the DNR’s oversight. The smelter was shut down in 2013 and the refinery in 2021, and 20 acres of “nearly vacant land adjacent to the Mississippi River” in Herculaneum have been remediated by third-party developer Riverview Commerce Partners and turned into a river port.
“The department will oversee: transfer of WWII-era slag used as fill on the site to an adjacent permitted slag repository; removal of foundations; and, sampling of soil and groundwater to fully characterize the site,” the DNR spokesperson added in the email. “Doe Run has proposed capping the smelter site to secure any remaining lead contamination. When a detailed cleanup plan is submitted, the department and EPA will engage the public for their input before final plans are approved. When site cleanup is complete, land-use controls would be implemented to protect any contamination left in place from disturbance and exposure.”
On air, Mahfood offered his suggestions for people concerned about contamination issues in their own communities. His first tip? “Don’t stay quiet.” And start searching online for “environmental advocates for [your] region.”
“There are people that can be helpful [and] guide you in what you need to do — and maybe even come to rescue whether through the legal system or through some other communication means with the regulatory agencies,” he said. “But don’t just sit back and think, ‘Well, somebody else is going to take care of this.’ You’ve got to have that push.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.