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Missouri town copes with lead contamination

From Natalie Pawelski

HERCULANEUM, Missouri (CNN) -- For more than 100 years, the biggest lead smelter in the United States has been the biggest landmark in the small Missouri town of Herculaneum.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency is telling dozens of neighbors to leave their homes for a while because their houses and yards are contaminated with lead.

"It's hard on them," said Carol Miller, whose children are stuck inside the house on a rare, warm January day because playing outside might be hazardous to their health.

In Herculaneum, about 30 miles south of St. Louis, all the playgrounds are closed and signs warn children not to play on the streets.

The EPA said the Doe Run Co. smelter has polluted earth, air and water with lead, and it is asking more than 90 families to move out of their homes while their yard soil is replaced and houses cleaned up.

But plans to move families back into their homes after the lead has been removed don't sit well with some neighbors.

They said they worry that if the smelter continues to pollute, their houses and yards will be contaminated all over again.

Doe Run said that the contamination won't happen and that its smelter continues to cut emissions while the company pays to clean up yards and homes.

"There have been emissions in the past, and what we're now doing is coming into compliance with the National Ambient Air [Quality] Standards," said Barbara Shepard, the company's vice president of human resources and community.

"So we're now wanting to get the soils and the houses cleaned up. We did not do anything wrong."

Health concerns cited

In the meantime, Carol Miller worries about elevated lead levels in her home and in her children's blood, and on learning disabilities and health problems she blames on lead.

"Everything that they say lead can cause, we have it in our family," she said.

The Millers are moving into a motel while their topsoil is replaced and their house scrubbed.

But they will come back to a street where some neighbors don't yet qualify for cleanup.

"I guess when we come back we'll live in a little bubble," she said.

The EPA said wholesale evacuations are not necessary, and the lead company agrees.

"The risks are not that great to be living here," Shepard said. "We're changing the soils, we're cleaning the houses and we're also doing the schools and playgrounds. We're a responsible corporate operation wanting to work with this community to make things right in Herculaneum."


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