Pickle Creek runs two miles through Ste. The Sandstone Valleys of Genevieve County. It carries some of Missouri’s cleanest water, but residents fear that could change once NexGen Silica receives full permission to quarry sandstone on a 249-acre property along nearby Highway 32.
They don’t have to look very far to see the outcome they fear most.
Ste. Genevieve is located near Missouri’s Old Lead Belt, where mining lasted from 1700 to 1972 and spanned nearby Washington, Madison, and St. Francois counties.
The industry produced nine million tons of lead and 250 million tons of hazardous mining waste.
Decades later, some local residents are still concerned with toxic waste left over from lead mining.
“There’s literally a Superfund location right in the middle of town that they cordoned off, but for decades it was just loose and blowing all over the place,” said Samantha Danieley, who grew up in Washington County and now lives in St. Francois County.
The new mine has nothing to do with lead, but residents fear history could repeat itself. Lead mining and silica mining can both produce invisible dust that can harm a person’s health if ingested or inhaled once airborne.
Brothers Larry and Patrick Kertz are lifelong residents of Ste. Genevieve. They remember riding motorcycles past the hills of mine debris 35 miles from home in the 1970s and 1980s.
After living in the shadow of lead mining, Larry Kertz said he wanted to better understand what’s left when the silica mine is no longer useful.
“It could be a big trench with a huge pile of quartz sand that could be blown into the area,” he said. “They don’t really address what to do after the mine is over.”
Other local residents are concerned about how the mine will affect the natural environment.
“We want to raise our kids in this beautiful outdoor environment with life on the farm and all that stuff. And now we have this potential threat to our children’s health and development,” said Jillian Ditch Anslow, mother of a 14-month-old daughter. Earlier this year, Anslow launched Operation Sand, an organization targeting the silica mine.
The battle over NexGen’s silica mine has reignited a debate that has been playing out in communities across the country, where residents regularly risk exposure to the neurotoxin in their daily lives due to the enduring legacy of lead mining.
Lead persists in the environment, including in water and soil, where it can pose a health hazard to those living nearby. After mining in the Old Lead Belt ceased, several large areas of mine tailings, known as chat dumps, were left in the region.
A combination of years of blowing winds, rainwater, and manual hauling of waste materials by local people has increased the poison’s reach. The Big River, a tributary of the Meramec River, also carried toxic mine waste downstream.
“I remember growing up in Potosi and we would pick up bits of lead off the ground,” Danieley said.
Some of the abandoned piles extend over 1,000 acres, said Jason Gunther, a project manager at the Environmental Protection Agency who oversees remediation work at the Big River Mine Tailings Superfund site, including St. Francois County.
“This material was also placed over these cities, some of these piles were 300 feet above neighboring cities,” Gunther said. “They would blow… not just gravel-sized materials, but much finer materials as well.”
He estimates that the soil on 5,000 properties in St. Francois County has been contaminated with lead, although soil sampling is not yet complete.
Even if a sample comes back at 800 parts per million — twice the concentration the EPA considers safe for children to play with — it could take years to remediate the soil because many properties are tested at high concentrations.
“It’s not uncommon to see some that are over 2,000 parts per million,” Gunther said.
Natural lead levels in soil typically range from 50 to 400 parts per million, according to the EPA. Gunther expects soil remediation and pile stabilization work to continue beyond 2030.
Meanwhile, the locals have adapted to life in the toxic circumstances. Danieley said when her teenage children were younger, she worried about letting them play outside. Children can get poisoned from playing in contaminated soil if they get lead dust or paint shavings or dust on their fingers and then put their hands in their mouths.
Danieley also worried about how the contaminated soil could affect local agriculture.
“If you’re gardening outside and you’re digging through all this lead-contaminated dust, you get that dust on your hands, you might ingest it,” she said.
Mining isn’t the only way lead can end up in the soil, says Jeff Wenzel, office manager for the Missouri Department of Health’s Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology.
Soil along busy roads can also be contaminated before unleaded gasoline was available, and paint chips from old houses can contaminate soil in yards.
But particularly in Missouri, lead mining contributed significantly to soil contamination in some areas.
“Lead mining has been around in Missouri pretty much since Missouri was a state — even before Missouri was a state,” Wenzel said.
Once lead gets into the ground, it can pose a major health risk to those living nearby. Wenzel says that in addition to being hand-to-mouth, lead particles can also be inhaled into the mouth and then swallowed.
Crops grown on spoiled soil can also pose a threat.
“Your root crops may have left dirt or soil, so you should clean them really well,” Wenzel said. “We see uptake in plants, particularly plants like kale. Things like green plants that can live for several years or come back year after year can have pretty high lead accumulations.”
According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe concentration of lead, and even low levels of exposure have been shown to cause cognitive impairment in children.
Decades of research has shown that children who live near mining areas are more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than children who don’t.
Missouri’s Old Lead Belt Counties aren’t the only former mining regions to have been devastated by the effects of industry long after they ended.
Galena, Kansas is part of the Tri-State Mining District, which until the 1970s spanned parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. The rural town of fewer than 3,000 people was named for the lead ore known as galena after it was found there in the late 19th century.
In the same county in Treece, Kansas, the Picher Lead Co. of Joplin, Missouri, discovered lead and zinc underground in 1914, according to a 2012 article in the New York Times. By the 1920s, the site was the nation’s largest producer of zinc and lead, and in 1981 the EPA ranked Treece as the most contaminated area in the nation. Today it is a ghost town that was bought out by the federal authorities.
Zinc and lead mining tailings covered 4,000 acres in Cherokee County when mining ended.
The EPA is still taking remedial action on the property and conducting survey work on nearby watersheds.
Health risks from silica
In Ste. Genevieve, Anslow wants to prevent her town from becoming a case study in how silica mining affects human health.
Silicon mining typically relies on open pit or dredging mining methods. The process can create dust-sized particles that are invisible to the naked eye, can be inhaled, and can reach the lungs. Over time, prolonged exposure has been linked to silicosis, lung cancer, or chronic bronchitis.
People who work directly with fumed silica are at the highest risk of developing medical lung disease, said Bobby Shah, a pulmonologist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri.
“We’ve definitely known for decades that silica itself is harmful to the lungs,” Shah said.
“Patients across the spectrum from acute, chronic or accelerated [silicosis] “They can develop scars in their lungs, the term commonly used as fibrosis,” Shah said, “and they can develop more respiratory symptoms quickly and from there.”
Shah said there isn’t enough data to know what risk silica particles pose to the general population around a mining site, but people who smoke are more likely to develop medical problems related to exposure.
Mitigation processes will help limit the mine’s impact on the health of local residents, said Clark Bollinger, general manager of NexGen.
“Certainly the dust won’t be a problem,” he said. “The noise – we have ideas and things to reduce the noise for local residents.”
Bollinger said the site contains enough reserves for about 50 years of mining and that there is a plan to restore the area and ensure it is safe after mining ends by creating a large lake.
He also said the mine will have minimal or no impact on nearby Hawn State Park or the local watershed and aquifer.
Missouri Parks Association executive director Kendra Varns Wallis said it’s not yet certain how the mine could affect local water sources and wildlife. Wallis expressed concern about its proximity to the Hickory Canyons Natural Area.
“There couldn’t be a worse place, to be honest,” Wallis said.
As Ste. The residents of Genevieve are fighting against the mine, NexGen is still a long way from laying the foundation stone. Some of Anslow’s work on Operation Sand paid off when county commissioners and the county health department passed an ordinance banning new mines from opening within a half-mile radius of schools, towns, churches, and public fountains.
NexGen has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to overturn the ordinance. In July, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Land Reclamation Program granted the Company one of three permits required to operate the mine. The company has yet to obtain water and air permits.