Monday, April 12, 2004


Piles of mine lead-containing mine waste, kids with high blood-lead levels and poor reading scores.
PICHER, Okla. — The wind blows hard here these days, carving the 100-foot minimountains of mine waste into buttes and whipping dust into the yards and homes nearby. In 2000, the last time a comprehensive study was done, 12 percent of the small children tested had levels of lead in their blood above the hazard threshold — about two and a half times the national average.

That was good news. In 1997, lead levels had been twice as high among children under 6 here and in the nearby communities Cardin and Hockerville, all of them near the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site. One child in four was then at risk for problems related to lead exposure, like lowered I.Q.'s and behavioral disorders.

These communities, where lead and zinc were mined for 60 years, are at a crossroads. In the last six years, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent $120 million to clean up the yards of families living in the middle of one of the oldest sites on the Superfund list of the country's most contaminated toxic waste sites. If the cleanup is responsible for lower lead levels among children, then further cleanup may make them safer. But if the wind off the hillsides recontaminates the land and the air, the scattershot damage that lead may inflict on young nervous systems will remain a danger.

Unlike Love Canal, the Superfund site in upstate New York that was declared clean in March, the massive Tar Creek mining site, whose lead ore became bullets fired in two world wars, offers a cautionary tale. Like a patient riddled with overlapping infections, Tar Creek has exhibited almost every symptom of a modern wasteland. Acidic, rust-red waterways threaten to pollute subterranean aquifers and pose a risk to wells and downstream lakes. Houses have been swallowed by subsidence above abandoned mine shafts; sports fields in Picher sit atop a massive underground cavern.
And as night follows day, the responsible industries deny that there's any danger.
Robert Joyce, a lawyer for the two companies, said, "We believe very strongly, based on the evidence we have, that dust is not the source of lead contamination in Picher."

Don Robbins, the director of environmental services at Asarco, which also operated in the area, said, "There's no doubt that there's some concentration of lead in the tailings, but we believe that the concentration of lead in the tailings and the chemical form of that lead would not provide a significant risk to the children in the community."

Those companies and three others are defendants in a class-action suit brought by 11 Picher residents, seeking damages for health consequences and asking a federal judge to order a relocation program.