On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 7
We meet Missouri Water Sentinels Tom and Angel Kruzen, above, in the parking lot of the Quick Trip convenience store in Herculaneum, Missouri, on the Mississippi River 25 miles south of St. Louis. With them are Jack & Leslie Warden, below, former residents of Herculaneum, which has the dubious distinction of being home to the dirtiest lead smelter in the United States.
The two couples have been working together for years to compel the Doe Run Company, which operates the Herculaneum smelter, to clean up its act or shut down the smelter. "The level of heavy metal contamination in Herculaneum was 25 times higher than allowed by U.S. Law," Tom says. "Virtually everyone in town was poisoned."
Residents of Herculaneum have long been afflicted with high lead-blood levels and alarmingly high incidences of asthma, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, and learning disabilities. For years, locals have been sickening and dying of cancer and other illnesses like Lou Gehrig's disease and kidney failure. Jack Warden's younger brother was among the casualties.
But thanks to the persistence and tenacity of the Kruzens, the Wardens, and other citizens who weren't afraid to speak out, the Herculaneum smelter is due to close at the end of 2013, and Doe Run has been ordered to pay $65 million to correct violations of environmental laws at 10 of its lead processing facilities in Missouri.
While the Kruzens were fighting new lead mining operations in the Ozarks, the Wardens were becoming increasingly alarmed at the battery of health issues plaguing their neighbors. Then their son, a cross-country runner, began regularly complaining that his throat and nose were burning, and their niece and nephew were diagnosed with high lead-blood levels.
"We decided to look into the situation," Leslie says, "and when we started digging we found out the government agencies that were supposedly there to protect us were asleep at the switch."
Doe Run repeatedly told Herculaneum residents that the lead smelter was in compliance with emissions standards. In truth, the company was in negotiations with the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over decades-old lead standards, and as long as they were still negotiating, they were technically not out of compliance.
"It didn't mean Herculaneum wasn't being poisoned—it just meant they were talking about how not to poison Herculaneum," Leslie says. "And they'd been talking about it for over 30 years."
After their son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and started coming down with migraines, the Wardens started making inquiries with Doe Run and the regulatory agencies. "Calling Doe Run went nowhere," Jack says. "It was like hitting a brick wall—and the agencies weren't much better. The most help we got was from environmental groups like the Sierra Club."
The lead standards put in place in the 1970s were supposed to be reviewed every five years, but a full review hadn't been done in decades. "Our children were the canaries in the coal mine," Leslie says, "and that wasn't going to fly anymore. Our kids weren't going to be guinea pigs. So we sued the EPA to make them do their job."
Jack began collecting samples of the "funny gray dust," above, that coated Herculaneum's streets and brought the samples to a meeting of the local Citizens Advisory Group, sponsored by the EPA. There he & Leslie met the Kruzens, who directed them to the DNR, which analyzed the dust and found it to contain an astounding 300,000 parts per square million of lead.
"After we found that out, we sat in tears, asking ourselves, 'What do we do?'" Leslie says. "We felt like we and our families were expendable. As adults we felt like this isn't fair, but then life's not fair. But when you go telling mothers and fathers that their children are expendable, it's personal—real personal—and you have to fight back."
The couple started going to public meetings and educating themselves about the legal, scientific, and regulatory aspects of the fight they were taking on. And at the Kruzen's urging, they alerted the media that the dust Jack had collected on the streets of Herculaneum was 30 percent lead.
"Local and state newspapers quickly spread the news," Tom recalls, "and soon we were giving tours to CNN, 60 Minutes, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Bill Moyers NOW."
"Tom and Angel taught us the ropes," Leslie says. "They taught us that we needed to know the answers before we asked the questions, because if you weren't educated you wouldn't know if they were telling the truth. Early on, agency officials would worm around our questions, give partial answers, and speak in terms the average person couldn't understand. But we learned to put things in lay terms and ask them to explain the situation in a way the general public could understand."
"We'd hold up the agency's own study and say, 'Your study says this is bad for us—why are you telling us it's not?'" Jack says. "And throughout the meeting hall you'd hear, "Ohhh…" as the light bulbs went on in people's heads."
Doe Run began tearing up and replacing residents' lawns because the grass was so toxic, and advising people not to wear their shoes inside for fear of tracking hazardous waste into their homes. But it was to no avail. Residents continued to fall ill, compelling the company to buy up 160 homes near the smelter. Whole blocks have been leveled, and what remains of the neighborhood is essentially a ghost town.
Poring over old maps spread out on his kitchen table, Jack points to his mother's house, his grandmother's house, and the playgrounds, the bowling alley, the IGA grocery store of his youth—now vanished; condemned and demolished by Doe Run. "We've lost the town we grew up in, and the home that we bought to raise our son is now flattened," he says. "He can never come back with his kids and say, 'I grew up in that house.' It's hard being without the town where you grew up, but the town chose the company over the citizens."
"Doe Run and the regulatory agencies were the self-proclaimed experts on lead, yet they didn't know how to bring this thing into compliance," Leslie says. "And our point was, if you don't know how to run your plant without hurting people, then get the people away from it or shut it down." Doe Run started moving people out, and in October 2010 the company announced it will close the smelter by the end of 2013.
"Basically they're shutting down because they didn't want to spend the money to meet the new emissions standards," Leslie says. "Their news release said they're closing voluntarily. But it was citizen action that showed them to be out of compliance. It shined a light on them and exposed them for what they were doing. And we couldn't have accomplished this without the help of Tom and Angel and the Water Sentinels."
Asked what advice he'd give other citizens in a similar situation, Jack says, "Be vocal. Reach out. Get involved. There's somebody out there who will help you. If it wasn't for all the help we received from other citizens, the situation wouldn't have changed at all. Doe Run would still be doing business as usual. But there are people like the Kruzens who are willing to sacrifice their time to assist you in getting something done that's called for.
"But it's a long fight," he says, "…very long."