EPA to clean up around schools in ‘Old Lead Belt’

Publication Date 11/20/2010
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it will remove and replace lead-contaminated soil around 11 schools and 16 child care and Head Start centers in St. Francois County.

The soil removal is expected to protect more than 5,300 children in Park Hills, Bonne Terre and Desloge from potentially harmful exposure to lead.

The cleanup effort is the largest in the state to focus on such facilities in at least the past several years, said Chris Whitley, an EPA spokesman. The presence of lead is nothing new to residents of St. Francois County, which is part of the “Old Lead Belt,” where mining occurred for more than 100 years. The St. Joe Minerals Corp. disposed of lead mine tailings from 1929 to 1958 in the area, the EPA said.

“When you’re in the Lead Belt, it’s there. What are you going to do?” said Angie Rokiski, who has owned the Bright Beginnings daycare center in Park Hills for 20 years.

Both of her grandfathers worked in St. Joe mines. She wasn’t surprised when the EPA told her this week that the yard around her daycare center, including her playground, had elevated levels of lead.

She cares for 10 children, ages 2 to 7. Several napped on cots at midday Friday. They usually play outside for about an hour a day.

Rokiski said the county health department tested her yard about 16 years ago and found high levels of lead. She did what she could to get rid of it, including removing contaminated gravel from the play area, but it wasn’t enough.

Measures this time will be more intense: The EPA will excavate and replace soil in the yard plus rock in her parking lot in hopes of ridding the yard of lead for good.

Lead is a neurotoxin that interrupts normal brain development and has been linked to behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children. Adults can tolerate higher lead levels than children but also can suffer health problems.

Children are typically exposed to lead by playing in contaminated soil and putting dirty fingers in their mouths, or by breathing contaminated dust, the EPA said. The schools and child centers are expected to remain open until the EPA can remove the contaminated soil.

The soil removal at all the schools and child centers will cost at least $6 million, the EPA estimated. That figure does not include soil disposal and replacement with new soil

Cleanup work is expected to be done by the end of the month at Central Middle School in Park Hills, said Central School District Superintendent Desi Mayberry. In some areas, crews had to scrape off and replace 6 inches of topsoil to eradicate the lead; other spots required 2 feet of digging, he said.

He distributed a letter to parents alerting them of the work and why it was necessary but said no parents called him with concerns about the contamination.

“It’s nothing new to this community,” Mayberry said.

Central High School and Central Elementary are also slated for cleanup. High lead levels were found on one of the elementary school’s two playgrounds, which means children won’t play there until the EPA replaces the soil, Mayberry said.

Stacy Dischbein, whose 6-year-old son attends the elementary school, said Friday that she has lived in the area all her life and doesn’t know anyone who has suffered adverse affects of lead poisoning. News that her son’s school was contaminated didn’t overly concern her, but she wasn’t at ease either.

“When I wasn’t a parent, I didn’t worry about it,” she said. “But now that I am, I worry about it more.”

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