Lead Emissions Scare Smelter's Neighbors Latest Readings Are Highest Ever in Missouri

Article excerpt

Jeremy Savage bounded off the school bus in front of his home and headed for the back yard, where his soccer ball, bike and a beagle pup named Minnie awaited.

But with summer coming, the 6-year-old's mother, Pat Savage, is concerned she might have to keep her son inside because the air around their home may be hazardous to his health.

The Savages live some two miles north of a lead smelter operated by Asarco Inc. in Glover, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

The smelter's pair of towering smokestacks - one is 20 feet shy of the 630-foot Gateway Arch - dominate the skyline and rain lead particles down on the valley nestled within the Ozark hills of southeast Missouri.

The state monitors the stacks' emissions, and the readings for the latest quarter available are the highest ever seen in Missouri - the lead capital of the world.

The Environmental Protection Agency established in 1978 a national standard for lead emissions: 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air. Anything over that is a violation.

All seven of the monitors around Asarco's smelter exceeded that standard for the fourth quarter of 1993 - and one recorded a whopping 23.6 micrograms.

By comparison, the highest reading for the state's other lead smelter, operated by Doe Run Co. in Herculaneum, was 2.3 micrograms.

Terry Erskine, general manager of Asarco's Missouri lead division, said the smelter does have emission problems, but he added: "I don't think by any stretch of the imagination that could be called a public health hazard. There's a fair degree of hysteria involved."

The Iron County Health Department provides free blood-lead screenings for those living around the Asarco smelter. Pat Savage takes her family once a year.

Jeremy's last reading was 7 micrograms per deciliter of blood. His father, Kevin Savage, had the highest reading of the family with a 12.

Federal health officials say 10 or more is a cause for concern, especially for children who can suffer a loss in IQ because of high blood-lead levels.

Pat Savage pointed out that the testing was done in mid-winter, "when Jeremy had been playing mostly inside for nearly three months." She fears his blood-lead level will climb this summer, when he's out playing soccer and riding his bike.

"Sometimes you can't come out in the yard because the sulfur from the stacks smells so bad," she said. "My mother-in-law lives next door, and it burns her skin and eyes." State's Top Polluter

In EPA rankings released this month, Asarco headed the list of polluters in Missouri for 1992. Nationally, Asarco's plants rank it fifth among the top sources of toxic pollution.

In Missouri, the company reported 8.2 million pounds of toxic releases on land - mostly the lava-like slag produced during smelting. Doe Run, which previously was the state's No. 1 polluter, had 6.5 million pounds for the period.

The Missouri attorney general's office is involved in two actions with Asarco. It has filed suit alleging that the company is exceeding its permit for lead discharges into the West Fork of the Black River.

The office also is seeking to have Asarco study soil near the smelter and clean up areas of high lead contamination.

Federal and state officials complain that Asarco responds to efforts to curb its pollution with legal maneuvers.

In remarks to the governor's commission on lead earlier this year, Lisa Haugen of the EPA office in Kansas City said Doe Run had spent $10 million on pollution controls and had a plan to meet the 1.5 standard for lead emissions.

But Asarco has made little progress toward cleaning up its emissions, she said. She called the company's environmental history "checkered at best."

Roger Randolph, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said the state is meeting with Asarco to come up with a compliance plan for air emissions. …