EARLY last year, the low price of lead and soggy weather compelled Doe Run Company to suspend exploratory drilling on two sites north of the Eleven Point River in the Mark Twain National Forest.
The company had spent nearly a decade fighting environmentalists for the right to encamp at the scenic sites and drill for the highly toxic metal through virgin aquifers supplying water to thousands of area residents. In the past decade, Eastern European producers have been dumping large lead stocks on the market, driving down prices. After years of turning a profit, Doe Run fell into the red in 1992 and was put up for sale by its owner, the Fluor Corporation.
Doe Run cannot hope to prevent the misfortune caused by markets, foreign lead producers, and the weather. But its officials now apparently want to forestall some environmental headaches through aggressive grass-roots politicking.
Doe Run and other lead-mining companies have backed a nine-month-old campaign by People for the West! (PFW) to organize local chapters against environmental regulation in Missouri. PFW has consistently entered environmental controversies and championed the interests of the minerals industry, its biggest donor.
For Doe Run, this political boost comes none too soon. Doe Run is caught in the middle of a dispute between two branches of the US Department of the Interior. The National Park Service and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment recently called for the ouster of Doe Run from the sites at the Eleven Point River. The mining and minerals branch at the Park Service asserts that the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management broke government regulations by approving drilling by Doe Run. They say the company lacks a valid prospecting lease and may not engage in new drilling.
``Our analysis concludes that there is no legal authority for the ongoing exploratory drilling by Doe Run. Therefore, the exploration operations should be halted immediately,'' says an internal Park Service memo dated July 22, 1993.
The land bureau gave Doe Run the go-ahead for drilling because a tightening of federal standards had made the company's initial data obsolete, says Walter Rewinski , a deputy director at the land bureau's eastern states office.
Directors of the land bureau and Park Service have discussed the dispute, says Bob Walker, a spokeman for the Interior Department. ``We're determined to work this out as a department,'' he says. ``The company certainly has some rights here, and there is no way we can run roughshod over their rights.''