You have permission to edit this article.
State parks trump public health

In the Ozarks, state parks trump public health

  • Updated
  • Comments
  • 12 min to read

Copyright The Salem News 2017

Jay Nixon State Park towers from a mountaintop on the border of Iron and Reynolds counties, welcoming hikers to its secluded lake and 1,230 acres of Ozark wilderness. Announcing the new state park was one of the last acts of its namesake, Gov. Jay Nixon, who left office as Missouri’s executive after two terms Jan. 9.

Hidden in the shadow of this recreational pleasure, however, exists the pollution and public health crisis that funded the purchase of the site’s land. For just down the slope from Jay Nixon State Park is some of the worst lead contamination in the entire state, with elevated lead levels among children measuring in places as high as 1,000 percent above the national average.

More than $48 million from legal settlements has been collected in Missouri for lead mining-related environmental restoration. However, of the $13.4 million that has been spent so far, only 12 percent has been spent restoring land where lead contamination exists, while more than 81 percent has gone toward buying property for Jay Nixon State Park and other state park acquisitions.

Lead Belt burden

The Ozarks foremost fame is for its wild rivers and epic landscape, but just as breathtaking is the region’s industrial expanse. Lead mining has taken place in Missouri for centuries in a five-county block known as the Lead Belt. The primary area of activity today is along a 60-mile vertical stretch called the Viburnum Trend, which falls mostly in the Ozark backcountry of Iron and Reynolds counties. This hardy part of the state is populated by long-settled families in blue-collar towns like Viburnum, Bixby and Bunker. These communities swelled with the addition of the mine complexes, and for three generations local families have helped make their corner of Missouri the most productive lead mining region of the United States, and for a moment the most productive in the entire world.

Various companies have owned and sold Missouri’s mines over the past half-century, including Freeport McMoRan, the Magmont Joint Venture and ASARCO, LLC. Today, they are consolidated under the control of The Doe Run Company, which actively extracts minerals from several mines in Iron and Reynolds counties.

The wealth brought by mining the Viburnum Trend has ushered in neighborhoods of middle class homes and decades of job prosperity. Joining these trappings of the American Dream, however, is a heavier burden on the Ozark’s land and people.

Scores of reports from various state and federal government agencies document pervasive lead contamination in Iron and Reynolds counties. A 2008 report by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey documented elevated heavy metal concentrations such as lead, nickel, copper and cadmium were found present in streams, stream-bed sediments and the flesh of wildlife within 7.5 miles of mining sites in the Viburnum Trend. Other reports indicated elevated lead in creeks beyond 7.5 miles away, with some results exceeding the probable effect threshold at which “adverse biologic effects to sediment dwelling organisms are expected to usually or frequently occur.”

The USGS also found elevated lead in rainwater runoff from the Sweetwater Mine’s tailings enters into the groundwater system of Reynolds County by way of a losing stretch of Logan Creek.

Beyond this environmental pollution, the Ozarks’ lead contamination has placed its biggest burden on its children.

The Center for Disease Control reports, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”

The CDC estimates the nationwide average of children ages 0-6 with an elevated level of lead to be 2.5 percent. A 2016 Reuters special report documents the elevated lead rate in northern Iron County’s children is 29.5 percent, while northern Reynolds County’s rate is 16.37 percent.

The Salem News was referred to the state health department after contacting the Reynolds County and Iron County health centers. The state department of health was sent a list of submitted questions Jan. 23, and as of Monday had not responded.

The trustees

Several legal settlements for natural resource damage in Missouri’s lead belt have taken place between state and federal agencies, and the corporations that own or formerly owned many mining locations.

A 2009 settlement with ASARCO yielded $41.2 million for lead contamination connected to several locations including Reynolds County’s Sweetwater Mine and West Fork Mine, Iron County’s Glover Smelter, St. Francois County’s chat dumps and other locations in Madison County.

This was followed by a $1.25 million settlement with Magmont Joint Venture relating to operations at Iron County’s Magmont Mine. More than $7 million was also collected from Freeport McMoRan relating to operations at Iron County’s Buick Mine and Smelter.

A group called the Missouri Trustee Council decides on behalf of the public which environmental restoration projects will be funded with this settlement money. The trustees are made up of representatives from three public entities, including the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This trio is required to award funds to restoration projects through a request-for-proposals process outlined in the Southeast Missouri Ozarks Regional Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment.

The plan lays out 21 points of criteria to guide the group’s efforts and stipulates, “it is the Trustees’ intention to work closely with local stakeholders to develop successful compensatory restoration projects under the preferred alternative” and that “it is also the Trustees’ intention to work directly with impacted private and public landowners at the sites of natural resource injury.”

The Missouri Trustee Council has been given control of more than $48 million from lead mining settlements, of which $13.4 million has been spent by the end of 2016. More than $10.9 million of that total has gone exclusively toward land acquisitions for Missouri State Parks. The most expensive purchase is $8.5 million for land a two-hour drive away from the state’s lead contamination in Oregon County, which will soon create Eleven Point State Park. The Hennessey Tract in Reynolds County was purchased for $1.7 million and is now home to Jay Nixon State Park.

A total of 1,302 acres of additional land has also been purchased with settlement funds in Dent, Iron and Reynolds counties at a cost of $1.7 million. Those funds expanded the Goggins Mountain Wild Area of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park by 504 acres, the St. Francois Nature Area of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park by 198 acres and the remaining 600 acres joined the Mark Twain National Forest.

The trustees have thus far funded three restoration projects totaling $1.6 million. They include a bottomland restoration project on 30 acres of the West Fork of the Black River, a native plant diversity project across the US Forest Service’s Salem-Potosi Ranger District and riparian/wetland restoration along the Upper Big and Black rivers.

The trustees’ 2016 Strategic Implementation Restoration Plan says $16.7 million worth of additional projects are planned to be spent by 2018, but more than half that total is tagged for another land acquisition for Missouri State Parks. The location or name of the potential new park is not named in the document, but it does reveal $8.5 million is budgeted for the future site.

Of the remaining planned expenses, $7 million is tagged for stream/wetland and terrestrial restoration, while $1.2 million is tagged for US Forest Service land acquisitions.

The balance of the trustees’ holdings after these projects are funded will be $35.5 million.

For the birds

In a December 2015 supplemental report, the trustees concede “the funding of restoration projects in Oregon County necessarily means that there are fewer funds available for restoration projects in communities where the natural resource injuries occurred. A temporary, indirect result of this may include increased exposure by humans and natural resources to lead in soils and sediments for a longer period of time.”

The trustees justify this decision by citing legal authority in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Liability and Compensation Act which “gives the Trustees the discretion and responsibility to ensure that recovered funds are used to restore, rehabilitate, replace or acquire natural resources equivalent to those that have been lost or injured.”

The supplemental report stipulates that although the Oregon County land is a far distance away from Missouri’s lead contamination, “there are numerous connections between the injured resources and the properties that may be acquired. For example, there were injuries to a number of species resulting from the releases of hazardous substances, including migratory birds.”

The report goes on to say “the benefits of the projects were determined to outweigh the benefits of geographic proximity,” in reference to the Oregon County land providing an expanse of grassland and forest for migratory birds harmed by the lead pollution.

“The primary goal of these restoration activities is the acquisition and restoration in perpetuity of natural resources, which will be placed into public ownership as compensation for the natural resource injuries resulting from the releases of hazardous substances,” the report says. “Conducting remedial cleanups is not the purpose of identifying natural resource injuries and recovering damages.”

The trustees further elaborate cleanup may not be feasible due to ongoing mine operations and that the Environmental Protection Agency received $37.5 million from the same ASARCO settlement that funded the land acquisitions.

“The mission of the EPA cleanup program is to protect human health and the environment,” the report says. “Thus, the Trustees believe that the EPA clean-up program will address the risks posed to human health in these communities, while the trustees restore injured natural resources.”

The Salem News contacted EPA’s Region 7 office in Lenexa, Kansas, to ask how its portion of the ASARCO settlement funds has been spent. The EPA responded that none of the ASARCO funds are being spent in either Iron or Reynolds counties, but are instead benefiting three Superfund sites in the wider lead belt.

Led astray

In the trustees’ original 2014 restoration plan a list of 26 public meetings are presented as evidence the group “conducted extensive outreach to local communities covered by the current plan.”

Of the 26, one meeting was held in Iron County and none were held in Reynolds County, according to the plan.

“We were doing everything in our power for them just to meet us,” says Lance Mayfield, a former mayor of Viburnum and current member of several community boards. “If their objective was to use funds for the purpose of restoring the lead-affected areas, then they ignored our area. I have read the ASARCO settlement and there is no question what they are doing was not the original intent.”

Mayfield says he organized a meeting in Viburnum with members of the Missouri Trustees Council to discuss a mine tailings reclamation project.

“I’ve been working on a lake concept for more than 20 years and thought the money was finally available to at least study its feasibility,” Mayfield says. “At one point, local stakeholders met with nearly every regulatory agency the project would involve, EPA, DNR, we even had the mine companies on board too. Nobody said it was a bad idea. We had a round table and they all said we should look for more opportunities and move forward. But for whatever reason, when the time came and I pitched it to the trustees on behalf of our community (Viburnum), suddenly everyone lost interest or stopped their support.”

Iron County Presiding Commissioner Jim Scaggs says he also met with the trustees about local projects.

“We have a place here called Crane Lake right next to the Glover Smelter, which is a former ASARCO site,” Scaggs says. “If any project qualifies for restoration it’s that. It once had a good ecosystem of fish and birds. There was real opportunity to make a difference.”

Scaggs says he lobbied the trustees to restore the lake, but the group offered no commitment. He says eventually former Governor Jay Nixon’s office notified him that $2 million was available for the Crane Lake project, but it would not be coming from the mining settlement funds.

“Honestly, I took that as kind of – be quiet money,” Scaggs says. “I became very vocal that the funds should really be coming from the settlement money and not the taxpayers. It was never put in writing though, so I have no idea where that money would have come from or if it’s still available with the new administration coming in.”

The trustees proposed state park land acquisitions were revealed Sept. 2, 2015, at a public meeting at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in Reynolds County. Some local leaders say they weren’t notified this meeting was taking place.

“I wasn’t told about this. I didn’t know about it at all,” says State Representative Paul Fitzwater, whose 144rd District includes Iron and Reynolds counties. “You would have thought if they were planning to make a big announcement of how they were going to spend millions of dollars, they would have contacted the local state representative. They told me, ‘Well we posted it on our website,’ like anyone is checking that every day. They didn’t want anyone to know what they were up to. It was deceitful what they did, keeping people in the dark.”

Shama Ray and her husband Jack were two of 17 attendees at the Johnson Shut-Ins meeting. The couple lives in Bonne Terre next to one of the eight chat dumps for which the trustees received $33.4 million in damages as part of the ASARCO settlement. Given ongoing problems with lead in both their family and community, the two wanted to know what restoration efforts were underway.

“I feel like we’re being ignored by the government and The Doe Run Company,” Shama says of what she heard. “Parks won’t fix the problem. I have four children who are affected by lead, and I have a house which I can’t sell because it’s basically across the street from the chat dump. At the meeting they tried to explain they were going to protect these lands over here as compensation for what was damaged. Wouldn’t it just be smarter to fix the land which is already contaminated? Wouldn’t that help the people and birds and fish which has been damaged? When you ignore a problem it means you don’t care, so obviously they don’t care.”

The Nixon connection

Fitzwater says DNR acquiring land with settlement funds for Jay Nixon State Park and Eleven Point State Park by going around the legislature fits a similar theme in Missouri as of late. Six new state parks were either opened or announced by Nixon in his final year in office, all of which were created with money collected from legal decisions.

“It’s like what happened with Echo Bluff (State Park), using the Ameren settlement money to build that,” Fitzwater says. “I really think there should be an investigation and an oversight committee into how all this money has been spent by our former governor. We’re talking about millions of dollars that should have been spent to clean up this area of contamination, and it wasn’t.”

Echo Bluff State Park and Rock Island Trail State Park were partially developed with funds from a $180 million settlement between Ameren and the State of Missouri in 2007 in regards to damages incurred as a result of the failure of the Taum Sauk Reservoir, according to DNR. DNR also confirms two other state parks Nixon announced prior to leaving office were primarily purchased with funds from another legal settlement, in this case a $43.9 million agreement in 2015 between the State of Missouri and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation relating to pollution at locations in Kansas City and Springfield. Those new parks are Ozark Mountain State Park in Taney County and Bryant Creek State Park in Douglas County.

State Representative Jeff Pogue of Salem, whose 143rd District includes Echo Bluff and Eleven Point State Park, says he believes Nixon played an instrumental role in how these settlement funds have been spent.

“Jay Nixon was fully aware and was fully involved,” Pogue says. “He knew about the ASARCO settlement while he served as attorney general. As chief executive, he implemented the plan. He appointed his director for DNR, knowing that his director would serve as a trustee for the expenditures of the settlement. Nixon intended to use secrecy with his state park projects, refusing to involve any legislative advice, consent or approval.”

Former DNR Director Sara Parker Pauley represented the state government on the Missouri Trustee Council, and her agency submitted the state park acquisitions for the group’s consideration. She had been DNR director since December of 2010 but left the position to become the ninth director of the Missouri Department of Conservation on Nov. 1, 2016.

When asked to comment on Nixon’s alleged involvement, her MDC office responded “you will need to contact the current administration of DNR for information related to this issue.”

The Salem News was also unable to reach Nixon for comment, but during previous interviews he has defended his state parks expansion.

“I think it’s an opportunity to expand local businesses while protecting the resources that we’ve got,” Nixon said at Current River State Park on Oct. 15, 2016. “I think down here tourism is the best opportunity, it’s not great land to grow things on and the transportation is challenging here because the roads are so curvy.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia office is listed as the lead agency for the Missouri Trustee Council. The Salem News contacted this office to inquire if the trustees’ decisions were influenced by the governor’s office. An office representative involved in the process initially agreed to an interview, but later cancelled citing the intervention of lawyers from the US Department of the Interior.

Newly elected Governor Eric Greitens has appointed Carol Comer as the new director of DNR. The Salem News contacted Comer’s office asking if DNR will continue to submit state park acquisition proposals to the trustees in lieu of direct restoration projects. Her office responded “there are no current plans to acquire additional state park property with Natural Resource Damages settlement funds.”

What’s Next

Last year’s Senate Bill 682 sponsored by Senator Mike Cunningham (R- Rogersville) would have ordered that trustee-funded land acquisitions be auctioned off, with the recouped funds being designated for restoration, but out of the control of the trustees. The bill eventually died in the Senate.

Fitzwater recently introduced House Bill 600, which if passed will rename Jay Nixon State Park as Proffitt Mountain State Park. It has not yet left committee.

“I don’t care what they name after Jay Nixon,” Fitzwater says. “The reason I filed that bill is because of the deceitfulness they used to acquire that land using the ASARCO settlement funds.”

Scaggs says as Iron County’s presiding commissioner he gets only cold comfort from the prospect of either simply renaming Jay Nixon State Park, or having the promise of future restoration projects.

“The original intent of the (ASARCO) lawsuit was to spend the money where the lead mining impacted the environment,” Scaggs says. “But there was a stipulation they could buy similar land to what was affected. At the time the lawsuit was filed no one thought they were talking about land two hours away in a completely different watershed, or creating Jay Nixon State Park. For me, this isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. Just like Nixon, I’m a Democrat, too. But it’s wrong what he did down here. … The name on the park, that’s not what hurts, it was a bit of a rub in the face, but what really hurts is millions of dollars leaving the lead district when it should be spent here.”

As a victim of the lead contamination herself, Shama Ray also says she expects no joy from Missouri’s newest state parks.

“Why would I even go?” Shama Ray says when asked if she’ll ever visit either Eleven Point or Jay Nixon State Park. “I’m just a regular citizen, and my family’s sick, and some days I’m too weak to get out of bed because of what the lead has done to me. Those parks are simply too far away for my family to enjoy, and they even said at the meeting they were going to make them wilderness areas. So I doubt we could even complete the hike in given our health.”