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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Fight over silica mining rekindles fears about Missouri’s Old Lead Belt

Signs lining Highway 32 protest a proposed silica mine that would span 249 acres in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. Locals worry about the mine’s health implications on the community and environment.
Niara Savage
The Midwest Newsroom
Signs lining Highway 32 protest a proposed silica mine that would span 249 acres in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. Locals worry about the mine’s health implications on the community and environment.

A company called Nexgen Silica hopes to build a mine in St. Genevieve County. Residents who live with the toxic legacy of lead mining worry history could be repeating itself.

Pickle Creek runs two miles through Ste. Genevieve County’s sandstone valleys. It carries some of Missouri’s cleanest water, but residents worry that could change if Nexgen Silica gets full approval to mine sandstone on a 249-acre plot of land along nearby Highway 32.

They don’t have to look very far to see the outcome they fear most.

Ste. Genevieve sits near Missouri's Old Lead Belt, where mining lasted from the 1700s to 1972 and spanned nearby Washington, Madison and St. Francois counties.

The industry produced nine million tons of lead and 250 million tons of hazardous mining waste.

Decades later, some residents are still dealing with toxic waste left behind by lead mining.

“There is literally a Superfund site sitting in the middle of town that they capped off, but for decades it was just loose, blowing lead everywhere,” said Samantha Danieley, who grew up in Washington County and now lives in St. Francois County.

The new mine has nothing to do with lead, but residents fear history could repeat itself.

Lead mining and silica mining can both produce invisible dust that can harm a person’s health if swallowed or inhaled once it’s in the air.

Silica is found in sand, stone and concrete and is used to make glass, bricks, ceramics and other products.

Brothers Larry and Patrick Kertz are lifelong residents of Ste. Genevieve. They remember riding motorcycles past the hills of lead mining waste 35 miles from home in the 1970s and 1980s.

After living in the shadow of those hills, Larry Kertz said he wants a better understanding of what will be left when the silica mine is no longer useful.

“It could be a big ditch with a huge waste pile of silica sand that could blow out into the area,” he said. “They're not really addressing what's going to be done after the mine is over.”

Other residents are worried about how the mine will impact the natural environment.

“We want to raise our kids in this beautiful outdoorsy environment with farm life and all these things,” said Jillian Ditch Anslow, a mom to a 14-month-old daughter who started Operation Sand, an organization to oppose the silica mine earlier this year. “And now we have this potential threat to our children's health and development.”

Lasting legacy

The fight over Nexgen’s silica mine has rekindled a debate that has played out in communities across the country, where the lasting legacy of lead mining means residents regularly risk contact with the neurotoxin in their daily lives.

Lead persists in the environment, including in water and soil where it can pose a threat to the health of people living nearby. After the mining ended in the Old Lead Belt, several large areas of mine waste, called chat dumps, were left behind in the region.

This map shows the approximate locations of the mining districts in Missouri according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The proposed silica mine sits on the eastern side of the Old Lead Belt.
Missouri Dept. of National Resources
This map shows the approximate locations of the mining districts in Missouri according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The proposed silica mine sits on the eastern side of the Old Lead Belt.

A combination of years of blowing winds, runoff from rain and manual transportation by locals of waste materials have supercharged the toxin’s reach. The Big River, a tributary of the Meramec River, also transported toxic mine waste downstream.

“I remember growing up in Potosi and we would pick pieces of lead up off the ground,” Danieley said.

Some of the piles left behind span upwards of 1,000 acres, said Jason Gunther, a project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who oversees remediation work in Big River Mine Tailings Superfund site, including St. Francois County.

“This material was also set above these towns, some of these piles were 300 feet above the neighboring towns,” Gunther said. “They would blow — not just gravel-sized materials — but also much finer materials.”

He estimates the soil on 5,000 properties in St. Francois County has been contaminated by lead, although soil sampling isn’t complete.

Even if a sample comes back at 800 parts per million – double the concentration considered safe by the EPA for children to play in – it could be years before the soil is remediated because of the high number of properties testing with high concentrations.

“It's not uncommon to see some that are above 2,000 parts per million,” Gunther said.

Natural levels of lead in soil typically range from 50 to 400 parts per million, according to the EPA. Gunther expects soil remediation and pile stabilization work to continue beyond 2030.

Meanwhile, locals have adapted to life under the toxic circumstances. Danieley said when her teenage children were younger, she worried about letting them play outside. Children can become poisoned from playing in contaminated soil when they get lead dust or paint chips or dust on their fingers then put their hands in their mouths.

Danieley also worried about how the contaminated soil could impact local farming.

“If you're out doing yard gardening, and you're digging through all this lead contaminated dust, you're getting that dust on your hands, you're possibly ingesting it,” she said.

Mining isn’t the only way lead can end up in soil, says Jeff Wenzel, bureau chief for the Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Soil along busy roads can also be contaminated from before gasoline was unleaded, and paint chips from old houses can taint soil in yards.

But in Missouri in particular, lead mining contributed significantly to contaminated soil in some areas.

“Lead mining has been in Missouri pretty much since since Missouri was a state even before Missouri was a state."
Jeff Wenzel, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Once lead makes it into soil, it can pose a major health hazard for people living nearby. Wenzel says that beyond the hand-to-mouth route, lead particles can also be breathed into the mouth then swallowed.

Crops planted in tainted soil can also pose a threat.

“Your root crops can have dirt or soil left on them, so you want to clean those really well,” Wenzel said. “We see uptake in plants, especially plants like kale. Things like green plants that can live multiple years or come back year after year especially can have a pretty high lead accumulation.”

According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of lead, and even low levels of exposure has been shown to cause cognitive impairment in children.

Research dating back decades has shown that children living near mining areas are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children who don’t.

Missouri's Old Lead Belt counties aren’t the only former mining regions devastated by the impacts of the industry long after it ended.

Galena, Kansas, is part of the Tri-State Mining District that spanned parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri until the 1970s. The rural town of less than 3,000 people was named after the lead ore known as galena after it was found there in the late 1800s.

In the same county in Treece, Kansas, the Picher Lead Company of Joplin, Missouri, discovered lead and zinc underground in 1914, according to a 2012 article published in The New York Times. By the 1920s, the site was the largest producer of zinc and lead in the country and by 1981 the EPA ranked Treece as the most contaminated area in the country. Today, it’s a ghost town, bought out by the federal agency.

Waste from zinc and lead mining covered 4,000 acres in Cherokee County when the mining ended.

The EPA is still taking remedial action on the site and conducting investigative work on nearby watersheds.

Silica health risks

In Ste. Genevieve, Anslow wants to keep her town from becoming a case study for how silica mining impacts human health.

Silica mining typically relies on open pit or dredging mining methods. The process can generate dust-sized particles invisible to the naked eye that can be inhaled and reach the lungs. Over time, extended exposure is associated with silicosis, lung cancer or chronic bronchitis.

People working directly with silica dust are most at risk for developing medical lung conditions, said Bobby Shah, a pulmonologist with St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri.

“We definitely have known for decades that silica itself is harmful to the lungs,” Shah said.

Residents of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri worry about the impact of the mine on health and the environment.
Niara Savage
Midwest Newsroom
Residents of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri worry about the impact of the mine on health and the environment.

“Patients across that spectrum of acute, chronic or accelerated [silicosis], can develop scarring in their lungs, the term that is commonly used as fibrosis,” Shah said, “and they can quickly and then from there on, develop even more respiratory symptoms.”

Shah said there’s not enough data to know what risk silica particles pose to the general population surrounding a mining site, but people who smoke are more likely to develop medical conditions related to exposure.

“I don't want my daughter to be where it's like, okay, ‘Let's come and sample and let's monitor the children's health in Ste. Genevieve County,’” Anslow said.

Mitigation processes will help limit the mine’s impact on residents’ health, said Clark Bollinger, Nexgen’s general manager.

“Certainly the dust will not be an issue,” he said. “The noise – we've got ideas and things in place to help mitigate some of the noise for the local residents.”

Bollinger said the site contains enough reserves for around 50 years of mining and that there’s a plan in place to restore the area and ensure it’s safe after the mining ends by installing a large lake.

He also said the mine will have minimal or no impact on nearby Hawn State Park or the local watershed and aquifer.

Missouri Parks Association executive director Kendra Varns Wallis said it’s not yet possible to know for sure how the mine could impact local water sources and wildlife and expressed concern about its proximity to Hickory Canyons Natural Area.

"There couldn’t be a worse place to put (the mine), honestly."
Kendra Varns Wallis, Missouri Parks Association

As Ste. Genevieve residents fight against the mine, Nexgen remains far from breaking ground. Some of Anslow’s work with Operation Sand paid off when county commissioners and the county health department passed an ordinance prohibiting new mines from opening within a half-mile of schools, towns, churches and public wells.

Nexgen has filed a suit asking a judge to strike down the ordinance. In July, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Land Reclamation Program granted the company one of three permits required to operate the mine. The company must still receive water and air permits.

A joint investigation with the Missouri Independent and The Midwest Newsroom
A joint investigation with the Missouri Independent and The Midwest Newsroom

The Missouri Independent and the Midwest Newsroom are jointly exploring the issue of high levels of lead in the children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Niara Savage is the reporting fellow with NPR Midwest Newsroom and The Missouri Independent. Formerly an intern with St. Louis Public Radio, she’s especially interested in race, education and criminal justice. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Fisk University.