As much as we sometimes bristle about rules imposed by the federal government, we need only remember the huge chat piles that once dominated parts of the landscape in Jasper County to know why we need regulations.
Mine owners simply took the guts out of the earth and left the detritus. No thought was given to cleaning up the mess they had made. Their objective was to make money. Local leaders had a stake in the mines themselves, either directly as owners or management or indirectly through economic interests in the city, so there was no incentive to clean up. Waste was simply left on the landscape.
Of course, they didn’t know that the area’s economic bonanza they created harbored an unseen threat. Their smelters were belching out smoke laced with heavy metals that contaminated yards for miles around. Over 10 million tons of surface mining wastes contaminated about 7,000 acres in the Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt alone. No measure of how this affected the health of local people over the past century exists, but heavy metal contamination can cause a host of permanent effects on the brain, the kidneys and other body systems.
Our area hasn’t been alone with its environmental woes. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so contaminated that it caught on fire. That incident spurred the federal government into action and led to environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 by then-President Richard Nixon. Regulations were put into place to protect citizens, including banning DDT, reducing emissions that caused acid rain, getting the lead out of gasoline, classifying secondhand smoke as a cancer cause and creating emission standards for cars and trucks.
The EPA was also charged with remediating environmental hazards such as contaminated water and soils. These contaminated areas were dubbed superfund sites. As of April 10, there were still 1,337 superfund sites on the National Priorities List with 33 sites in Missouri, including the Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt, and three sites in Newton County.
The Joplin area was designated a superfund site after high lead levels were detected in the children who lived in areas near former mining activities. The EPA replaced the yards at more than 2,600 residential properties, making them safe for kids to play in the dirt. Meanwhile, several hundred homes were connected to public water supplies because their wells were contaminated with heavy metals. The project cost millions of dollars and was completed in 2002. Unfortunately, the 2011 tornado unearthed contaminated soil. As a result, the EPA has, thus far, awarded $8.5 million for testing and replacement of soils contaminated as a result of the tornado.
Ottawa County, Oklahoma, and Cherokee County, Kansas, suffered similar disregard by mining companies and were left with massive contamination. The EPA designated those areas as superfund sites as well and embarked on remediation.
Joplin is still paying the price for its mining history. The Joplin Globe recently reported on efforts by the city to eliminate the introduction of contaminated groundwater into the sanitary sewer system.
Private industry is often negligent about doing the right thing until it is coerced into being ethical. To not understand this is like believing that the goal of the fox is in accordance with ours when we engage him to guard the hen house. Federal regulations are needed to make industry toe the line.
I remember gathering for the first Earth Day in 1970 and what high hopes we had for a future with clean air, clean water and clean energy. I never dreamed that nearly half a century later our president would appoint an enemy of environmental protection to head the EPA and would propose slashing the agency’s budget by 31 percent. What happens when we have the next major oil spill? Who will oversee the cleanup? What happens to remediation of those 1,337 sites on the National Priorities List? What happens to the ongoing cleanup of the Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt, which has been projected to continue until the mid-2020s?
President Donald Trump’s policies threaten to return us to the dirty ages.
JOAN BANKS lives in Joplin and is a Member of Southwest Missouri Democrats.