The tale of Doe Run: a firm grip on the corporate ankle.
Ninety-five percent of all lead mined in the United States comes from Missouri. Doe Run is a St. Louis-based mining company that had morphed from the historic St. Joe Lead Company in the mid-eighties. The new name joined the St. Joe Lead Co. with Homestake Mining of San Francisco.
Around that time, a rather large group of Ozark dwellers, mostly refugees from other less pristine areas of the US, gathered in West Plains, Missouri to air our concerns about Doe Run's plan to explore for lead deposits along Missouri's three National Scenic Rivers, the Current, the Jacks Fork and the Eleven Point Rivers. We knew next to nothing. Around 30 people eventually sifted down from the 150 in that room. One of the first leaders to emerge from that pared-down number of fledgling activists told us to prepare for a long fight if we decided to take on the world's largest integrated lead producer. She also told us that we needed to educate ourselves on all aspects of the problem from geology to government bureaucracies. A core group of us have done just that.
The first efforts were playing defense. The more we learned about our karst topography in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, the more we knew just how great a threat lead mining would be. A vast area of sinkholes, losing streams and caves spoke to us as did a new-found ally, hydrologist Dr. Tom Aley. He told and showed us just how fragile karst was. At his Ozark Underground Laboratory, a sprawling two-mile registered national landmark, Tumbling Creek Cave, he demonstrated that whatever was on the surface of the ground would end up in the underground water system in as little as 15 minutes from the first rain drops of a storm.
Karst, decaying limestone perforated with holes much like a sponge, provided many astounding geologic features and as many hydrologic features such as Big Spring, North America's largest single-outlet spring, and Greer Spring, Missouri's second largest spring--and most wild. These and a myriad of tertiary world-class and minor springs provided much of the crystal clear water to the National Scenic Rivers (the Jacks Fork and Current) and the Wild and Scenic Eleven Point River. The springs, rivers and caves made this area beautiful, fragile and definitely worth saving from industrial processes such as mining. A couple of billion gallons of water leave the Ozarks through these outlets every day as well as dissolved limestone. Mining waste (tailings) ponds and transportation and smelting of lead ore would irrevocably change this special place.
Never having dealt with government bureaucracies before, our merry band quickly discovered its laws, rules and processes. The first battles were all fought within the minefields of the Forest Service and the US Department of Agriculture. We appealed the Forest Service's decision to let Doe Run explore. Hundreds of meetings, hearings and appeals delayed the onset of exploration until 1992. Doe Run did eventually sink 6 exploratory drill holes (the Forest Service had given permits for 20) but stopped due to falling metal prices and bad weather.
We had lost our first battle; however, we had learned thousands of valuable lessons. What was at stake, how the mining industry operated and how they had cozied up to the very government agencies which were also sworn to "protect" resources like the Mark Twain National Forest and the Scenic Rivers were all included in our steep "learning curve."
In the early nineties, Doe Run and other resource extraction companies formulated the "Wise Use Movement," panoply of industry-sponsored phony grassroots groups designed to keep real activists off their corporate tails and busy fighting such fictional issues as a United Nations takeover of the Ozarks and mysterious black helicopter invasions designed to steal private property from the citizenry and introduce rattlesnakes to the Ozarks. Their standard cry was to mine, clear-cut and bury all public lands in All Terrain Vehicles.
They also blurred the lines between what was public and what was private, often demanding that private corporations had a God-given right to devastate public property. (Many of the stars of that movement have gone on to populate the administrations of George W. Bush.) Actually the rattlesnakes had never left the Ozarks but it made for great fearmongering to hear tales of them being dropped out of helicopters! Mining sympathizers, having been promised high-paying jobs by Doe Run, assaulted us verbally and sometimes physically. Some of us were beaten up; some of us received death threats and dead cats in the mail. Somewhere in between dealing with government and corporate tomfoolery and the fear mongers, we decided to take the offensive position. Football and politics allow the players to act in both modes. It wasn't really a conscious decision; it simply evolved. I suppose some of us had reached our fill of lies and damn lies.
The more we learned, documented and photographed mining, the more we knew how destructive and detrimental it was. The United Nations lists mining as the single most destructive human activity on the planet. The pictures, historical as well as current, were not at all pretty. Doe Run had lots of dirty laundry and we, (the Local Committee for a Lead Free Ozarks, the Ozark Center for Environmental Education, the Ozark Riverkeepers Network, the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment) dug into Doe Run's past, their ownership and their disasters and we aired their soiled operations on every media outlet who would listen.
Gratefully, we discovered that we had many allies and literally thousands of people nationwide and even internationally who knew about our rivers and the foul escapades of lead mining. They sent their letters to the Forest Service by the thousands and we knew we were not alone in our fight. Corporations have an Achilles heel: just like cockroaches they have an aversion to light and we delighted in exposing poisoned workers, poisoned lands and waterways and neglected laws to the light and truth of news coverage. A curious thing began to happen. Doe Run had begun to spend money on lawyers and public relations to defend its past and present sins. When we discovered an illegal dump on the back of their property, they had to spend money on a fence to keep out prying cameras.
Then, one day in 1993, the world changed for us as well as Doe Run. Three of our photographs, taken from an airplane 1500 feet above one of Doe Run's smelters showed that the company had been illegally dumping lead-bearing barrels of waste and had violated the Federal Clean Water Act ... five times! For these violations, Doe Run received a $300,000 fine from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Doe Run's back yards and dirty secrets covered by shrub plantings, stylish fences and corporate paint and pretty were now open for all to see. Our first Lighthawk flight was a booming success and even yielded $50,000 of that fine to go to the newly formed water quality monitoring network, the Missouri Stream Team Program. Teams of trained monitors now had equipment and skills to test water and catch corporate polluters such as Doe Run!
Lighthawk is an organization of volunteer pilots who give their flying skills and space on their airplanes to activists to enable them to have a "bird's-eye view" of environmental problems. Activists supply the fuel money. Our pilots, Elmer Schettler and Rick Durden, have flown many times over Ozark skies and both have become fast friends as well. Rick is now the National Director of Lighthawk. Doe Run workers spent a lot of time scanning the skies (their words) and the corporation spent thousands and perhaps millions of dollars making their facilities "impervious" from our friendly skies.
What was once hidden behind forested hills was now in the open: thousands of acres of mine waste tinged with eerie chemical colors, hundreds of rusted buildings, vent shafts, nasty diesel plumes, miles of slurry pipe, abandoned machines and waste were suddenly front-page news. Doe Run had threatened the very core of what makes this area uncannily beautiful and unique; it also threatened to poison all we held dear. The gloves were off.
In 1996, the miners changed course. Instead of trying to mine on federal land in the national forest, they pulled a sneak attack and proposed to mine on state conservation lands in Shannon and Carter counties. The faithful activists, who had persevered for a decade, now confronted the corporation and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), which had made a pre-emptive decision to allow Doe Run access to state lands. This was done in secret session, out of public view. MDC had clearly broken the state's Open Meetings and Records Act.
Outraged, several of us decided to sue the Conservation Commission. The justice system sided with us. Clearly, also, the charter for the Missouri Conservation Commission, set into existence with help from none other than iconic conservationist Aldo Leopold in 1936 made no mention of mining ... only that the commission shall have purview over fish, forest and wildlife. Mining was a nonstarter for them. Victory was achieved on this as thousands of Missourians wrote the Commission objecting to the plan.
The year 1997 brought Bob Lunsford into the equation. He was a technician at the University of Missouri, Rolla, working on an experimental smelter for Doe Run's low-alpha lead process. Lucrative low-alpha lead was a necessity for shielding high tech computer chips. The university as well as Doe Run funded and operated the experimental smelter on school property and on several occasions, through the ineptitude of several other technicians and professors, the smelter's plastic pipes melted (Doe Run has always operated on the cheap, skimping on quality control and safety.) McNutt and Fulton Halls had become contaminated with up to 150,000 parts per million (ppm) lead and other heavy metals.
Bob and other employees began to suffer health problems and they were the kind of symptoms found in other parts of the lead industry. What separated Bob Lunsford from the others was that he meticulously documented the accidents, the contamination and the complicity and awareness that the school officials exhibited. School administrators and Doe Run knew of the contamination and yet said nothing to students or staff working in those buildings. Technicians were expected to work around this dangerous machine without safety equipment, respirators or protective clothing. Many of them, including Bob, unwittingly took heavy metals home to their families. No one would listen to Bob at first. He found help in the environmental community.
With some financial support from the Sierra Club, he made copies of all his evidence, from photos to memos, and saved them for eventual litigation. I had connected him to the Washington, DC-based Government Accountability Project. They agreed to take Bob's case; he had been fired from UMR on Christmas Eve 1998 mostly for trying to do the right thing and expose the problems with the smelter project. Beware, the whistle blower. Like Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, whistle blowers gain very little from their efforts except pain and more pain. After the lawyers took depositions in preparing for a trial, the University settled out of court. Bob had "won" but he still suffered from the effects of heavy-metal poisoning. He coughs incessantly and has constant pain in his extremities. He also brought his meticulous detail and his dislike of things Doe Run to our ongoing battle.
As 2000 approached, Bob Lunsford and I began to explore the various mining and smelting facilities of Doe Run, who had purchased all other mining operations in Missouri in 1997 and consolidated their hold on lead mining in Missouri. We probed the smelter town of Herculaneum and began to attend faithfully the EPA-sponsored CAG (Citizen Advisory Group) meetings in "Herky." Bob brought his technical expertise and dogged sense if injustice and I brought a historical perspective.
We became avid members of the "After Midnight Club," showing up after the midnight hour to witness and record all the "fugitive emissions" spewing from Doe Run's leaky old smelter. These poisonous gases and small particulates were cast to the winds and settled onto the sleeping town. We showed many of our photographs to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and to the press. This was proof that Doe Run was not complying with the Clean Air Act. The MDNR's own air monitors showed that Doe Run had never complied with the law.
A concurrent issue arose quickly in Herculaneum when a brave citizen, Jack Warden, gathered samples of the "funny gray dust" that coated all the streets and alleys in the town six inches deep. Bringing the samples to a CAG meeting, Jack asked me what to do with them. I directed him to MDNR's Dave Mosby, who appeared to be sincere and open. Risking his job and the wrath of the mining industry, he analyzed the samples and they added up to an astounding 300,000 parts per million lead. This was an unheard of amount: one third of all that dust was lead. The local and state newspapers quickly spread that news and soon we were giving tours to CNN, 60 Minutes II, the New York Times, LA Times and Bill Moyers' Now.
Herculaneum was "on the map" and pressure was mounting to have the MDNR and EPA force Doe Run to buy out homeowners with contaminated houses. Some homes tested as high as 240,000 ppm. After an arduous negotiation session, Doe Run agreed to buy 160 homes over three years and to replace the soil of all contaminated yards. Today, virtually the south side of town is empty and the people moved to safer places. Despite millions of dollars of improvements on the 1890s smelter, buyouts and clean-ups, the town continues to be recontaminated.
In 1998 and again in 2003 a writer from Vanity Fair, Michael Shnayerson, exposed the ultimate corporate owner of Doe Run, Ira Leon Rennert. This crony of convicted junk bond king Michael Milken had the public persona of a beneficent philanthropist, donating millions to schools here and in Israel. His website entitled the Torah Ethics Project promulgated just and moral relationships with all. Privately, however, Rennert was building a grotesque copy of Versailles in Sagaponack, Long Island, reported to have cost one-hundred million dollars; at 100,000 sq. ft it was to be the largest house in America. It became known as the house with 41 bathrooms. The private persona of Mr. Rennert also included owning poison-filled industries such as Doe Run in Missouri, WTI Steel in Ohio and Magcorp in Utah. Poison, profit and death belied his Torah Ethics Project.
In 2002, the Rev. Elinor Stock gave a brief speech under the St. Louis Arch. The hair stood up on my head when she told of a huge protest of Peruvian citizens happening just then concerning lead poisoning in the Doe Run smelter town in the Andes, La Oroya. Doe Run purchased the old multi-metal smelter in 1997 and promised to clean it up. Company officials claimed to have reduced pollution by 40%. What they didn't tell the world was that their production increased 300% in that same time period. Virtually everyone in that town (30,000 people) was lead poisoned and the town was highly contaminated with heavy metals--25 times higher than allowed in the US.
Ellie Stock was a Presbyterian minister whose church had a mission in La Oroya. Joining Hands Against Hunger was a Presbyterian program that butted heads with the blatant mass poisoning of this Andean town. Our Herculaneum activists hosted two nurses from La Oroya, who told us horror stories about the people living in a toxic soup. Our Herculaneum chapter of Joining Hands agreed to work with and support our Peruvian counterparts. Two activists from Herky went to Peru to present a historical view and evidence concerning Doe Run's operations in Missouri. They testified before the Peruvian Congress.
A recent decision by the Peruvian government to only allow Doe Run 34 more months to complete the environmental clean-ups they promised in 1997 instead of the five years wanted by the company was a sign of a backbone being formed. Our Herculaneum Joining Hands group had also met with the Huancayo Province Catholic Archbishop, Pedro Barreto. Through Archbishop Barreto, Rev. Elinor Stock and our contacts at St. Louis University, the first-ever independent health study was done in 2005. The results gave the Peruvian government proof that Doe Run's lead and other heavy metals were poisoning the population.
After 20 years of preventing lead mining's expansion in the Ozarks, expanding our activity outward statewide, nationally and now internationally, Doe Run now has no place to hide its past, its current deeds or how it operates. At every turn, our exposing them has cost them millions of dollars and bestowed on them a public relations nightmare. It couldn't have happened to a better polluter.
Tom Kruzen is Chair of the Mining Committee of the Ozark Chapter, Sierra Club.