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BYRNES MILL • The Big River has long been a place where Jefferson County residents fish and swim.

Its rich flood plain has been a reliable source of fill dirt and topsoil.

Now there's concern that lead-tainted river water has not only contaminated the local fish but also seeped into the soil, prompting questions about the safety of both.

Recent studies and samples signaled widespread lead contamination in the river's 100-year flood plain that extends from Leadwood in St. Francois County to the Meramec River confluence near Eureka, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Big River flows along a curvy path, regularly overflowing its banks.

The EPA plans to begin testing 256 residential properties in Jefferson County by midsummer for elevated levels of lead. Nearly 2,000 residentially zoned properties sit in the flood plain in the county.

The Southwest Jefferson County Mining Superfund site covers Jefferson County. Only Herculaneum, home to the Doe Run lead smelter, is excluded. It has its own Superfund site.

Contamination in the Southwest site is linked to long-gone mining operations dating to 1818, according to the EPA. More mines opened in the 1830s and '40s to produce lead, zinc and barium. By 1855, three smelters were operating in Jefferson County, and historical records indicate more than 3 million pounds of lead were shipped out of the county each year, making it one of the largest lead-producing areas in the nation.

"Lead is naturally found in the county, and it's going to be in the environment," said Dennis Diehl, director of the Jefferson County Health Department. "Unfortunately, in years past, the way it was mined and handled, it caused some — if not most — of the contamination we see these days."

Lead is a neurotoxin that can interrupt normal brain development and has been linked to behavioral problems in children.

Last year, 2,376 Jefferson County children — about 12 percent of those ages 1 to 6 — were tested for elevated lead levels. Only 19, or less than 1 percent, had levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which is considered very dangerous. But health officials say no level of lead is safe.

Diehl did not have a breakdown of where those children lived, although none came from Herculaneum.

The river is also being blamed for contaminating county-owned parks it touches.

Recent soil testing at Brown's Ford Park and Morse Mill Park exceeded the 1,200 parts per million lead concentration that would require urgent action in residential areas.

Brown's Ford Park, in the southwest part of the county, touted as having some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the state, is the launch site for 18-mile float trips on the Big River that end at Morse Mill Park.

Lower levels of lead were found in Ball Memorial Park, Cedar Hill Park, Northwest Sports Complex, Rockford Beach and Riverbend Park.

Mike Ginger, the Jefferson County parks director, said the parks are safe to visit and that nothing has been planned to clean up contaminated areas.

"We're not going to be doing anything until the EPA says what needs to be done," Ginger said.

Meanwhile, lead concerns prompted the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services to issue a fish advisory for the Big River, urging people not to eat carp, suckers, longear sunfish, green sunfish, bluegill, warmouth sunfish or rock bass caught in the Big River in St. Francois or Jefferson counties.

Gail Beyer recalls fishing and swimming in the river when her sons, now adults, were small. She has lived in the Big River Hills subdivision in Byrnes Mill for 20 years. Her house is about a quarter-mile from the river.

As she walked the gravel path that leads to the river, she gestured to trees uprooted by high water.

"This part down here, it floods," Beyer said.

Remnants of a campfire littered the sand beach. Old cars filled the opposite bank. They'd been there since before Beyer moved to the subdivision, she said.

Just a month ago, she bought a dump truck load of dirt taken from that flood plain by Alan Walters, to level her sloping backyard. Now she wants the EPA to test it.

"I'm worried about the dirt," Beyer said. "I guess I'll have to wait and see if they find a lot of lead in it."

Walters, who operates Walters Hauling of House Springs, is more worried. Last week, he arrived in his dump truck to excavate the 8 acres he owns along the Big River, something he has done for the last 30 years.

"I don't want to hurt anybody, but I have to pay my bills," he said. Walters grew up in Byrnes Mill and said he has eaten "pounds of fish" from the river. Until this month, he said, he had never heard of lead pollution in the river or had a reason to suspect that his land could be tainted.

He plans to get the soil tested by a private company. If it tests positive, he vowed to stop selling it, adding that he hoped the government would buy it from him.

The EPA said it has been in touch with the Jefferson County Council about potential ordinances that could stop contaminated material from being sold from the Big River watershed. It plans to draft a series of recommendations.

The EPA is trying to learn how many people are hauling and selling dirt from the flood plain, which will reveal how widely contamination may have been spread.

But not everyone is worried. Kate Laird lives in the same subdivision as Beyer. When the Big River floods, it enters her backyard. Her children are grown, and she said they've always released the fish they caught.

Her husband worked at Doe Run for 10 years and suffers from various ailments, she said. Possible contamination from the river doesn't faze her.

Said Laird: "After all that he has been through, that's the least of our worries."

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