In Ozarks, drilling debate isn't about oil
The search for lead ore sparks a familiar jobs-versus-environment debate
BUNKER, MO., — When Dale Brooks says he doesn't want the clatter of drilling in his backyard, he really does mean his backyard.
After spending a career in St. Louis, Mr. Brooks returned to this corner of the Ozarks, his birthplace, after retirement, buying a 220-acre lot down a dirt road more than a mile from anyone. But a corner of the Mark Twain National Forest happens to come within 100 yards of his house - and therein lies the problem.
Somewhere beneath the ash and maple lies the world's largest concentrated vein of lead.
The US Forest Service recently granted a mining company permission to drill exploratory holes in the area to search for the high-quality ore that is used in everything from TVs to X-ray shields.
Brooks now envisions a future of bulldozers and Euclids instead of songbirds and the whoosh of wind through the trees. "I dreamed all my life of living here," he says. "To me this was paradise on earth. They've ruined the reasons for living here."
As this "battle of Bunker Hill" suggests, controversy over drilling on public lands isn't limited to the American West, nor to oil and gas.
Here, amid the rolling woodlands and brooks of the Mark Twain National Forest, the federal government's move to allow more than 200 exploratory holes to be drilled over the next two years is sparking a jobs-versus-environment debate that echoes those in other parts of the country - but also has an Ozarks flavor of its own.
"I just don't think mining belongs in scenic area like [Mark Twain National Forest]," says Tom Kruzen, mining chair of the Ozark chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's kind of like Humpty Dumpty. Once you've mined these public lands you can't put them back together again. You have valleys filled with mine waste and toxic material and that stuff stays there forever."
For Doe Run, the mining company that sought the permit to drill, the opportunity to look for new veins of lead is part of a long-term strategy of increasing known reserves. What oil and gas are to Texas and coal to West Virginia, lead mining is to Missouri. The state produces two-thirds of America's annual output, the majority of it concentrated here, where an ancient inland sea once lapped up against the base of the Ozark uplift, leaving a deposit only a few miles wide by 40 miles long known as the Viburnum Trend.
Environmental critics cite concerns about underground lead mining - from air and water pollution - to unsightly ponds, noise, and toxic dust. They're concerned about the cutting of new roads, spillage of ore concentrate off transport trucks, and the heightened risk to a particularly sensitive area - the southern end of the Viburnum Trend is less than 20 miles from one of the region's National Scenic Riverways.
But Doe Run says mining critics are jumping the gun. They argue that automatically linking exploratory drilling to new mining is misleading.
Even if exploratory drilling yields favorable results, permitting for mining is extensive, requires a full-scale environmental impact statement, and could take years. Doe Run officials point out that the company has been granted 12 exploratory permits in the last decade, but none have led to a mining application.
"You have to look at what are historical issues and what are current and future issues," says Barbara Shepard, a spokeswoman for Doe Run. "Sure there were things that were done differently in the past and we recognize there may be some problems there and we're fixing them voluntarily. At the time that was current technology. Now we know we need to be doing some things differently."
Of even greater health and environmental concern to critics is the refining process of lead, known as smelting. Last year, In Herculaneum, a town just south of St. Louis where Doe Run operates the nation's largest smelter, the state found that over one-quarter of the town's children under the age of seven had lead poisoning.
"I understand the whole environmental thing," says Karen Walls, standing outside the Rock Buster Video store in Viburnum, a town near the Mark Twain Forest which bills itself as the lead capital of the world. "Our kids tend to test high for lead. That's a concern. But when I drive the backroads, it's not like the whole countryside is destroyed."
Ms. Walls and her husband moved down from St. Louis seven years ago to enjoy the country life. Neither is employed directly or indirectly by the mines, but recognizes the importance of the industry to the local economy.
"We need the natural resources, we need the jobs - our community is based around the mines," she says.
The mining industry says it has already taken steps to minimize hazards of lead mining. For example, technological advances for the extraction of a higher percentage of lead from the ore reduces the amount of the metal that can seep from tailings ponds into the notoriously porous limestone formations undergirding the Ozarks. Contamination of the limestone could provide an avenue for broad dissemination of pollutants among a series of interconnected aquifers and springs.
Proponents of mining reject the framing of the drilling debate solely in environmental terms.
"You have to look at the big picture," says Randy Scherr, Executive Director of the Mining Industry Council of Missouri. "We all use lead, it's in our cars, we couldn't drive to work in the morning without it. Mining provides jobs and keeps communities in the region healthy. There has to be a balance, you have to include those considerations along with environmental concerns when you look at these things."