Bush OKs Ozarks Lead Exploration in Missouri Ozarks

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Bush OKs Ozarks Lead Exploration.

Final Decision Expected Soon on Lead Prospecting in National Forest

The Associated Press

Feb. 10, 2002

VIBURNUM, Mo. (AP) The tree-covered hills and winding streams of the Ozarks make the region Missouri's playground.

But beneath the thick curtain of evergreens also runs a rich vein of lead ore, and the Doe Run Co. wants to drill up to 232 holes in the Mark Twain National Forest in southeastern Missouri to prospect for possible sites for mining.

Critics say the prized public land should be left alone, and warn that the Bush administration is relatively friendly toward extracting resources. The administration has approved exploration permits for areas next to or near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in southeastern Utah's scenic redrock country, and supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

"These are our national forest and scenic riverways, where mining could cause great damage to the watershed. These are the jewels of the Ozarks," said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has long opposed drilling in the Mark Twain forest.

The areas where the company wants to drill are not close to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a network of protected rivers in southeastern Missouri, but critics worry that the area's porous limestone could allow any mining contamination to pollute watersheds miles away.

Doe Run is looking for new sources of lead along the Viburnum Trend, a 40-mile-long strip that is the world's largest known concentration of the lead ore galena. All the lead now produced in Missouri about 80 percent of the nation's production comes from that formation, to be used in such things as car batteries and X-ray shields.

Viburnum, population 825, owes its existence to mining. St. Joseph Lead Co., which later became Doe Run, arrived in the 1950s and laid out the town's roads. Some mining workers live in Viburnum, while most of the residents work for the schools, shops and other services that support the industry.

While other parts of the Ozarks support hunting, boating and fishing, and include the tourist magnet of Branson, the economy in the Viburnum area is not thriving. Unemployment varies from 7 to 11 percent, and much of land around here is part of the national forest, land that doesn't pay property taxes.

"If it wasn't for the local mining industry and the taxes they pay and the local businesses that support it, you'd be driving in here on gravel roads," said Lance Mayfield, an insurance salesman currently serving as president of Viburnum's city council. "There'd be no reason for people to be here."

Mayfield, whose family has lived in the area for six generations, says he's no friend of the mining industry. St. Joseph Lead fired him from a mining job after he helped lead a strike.

But he's no friend of environmentalists, either. He said both Doe Run and groups like the Sierra Club hold extreme views on the drilling issue, while most residents fall somewhere in between.

"My personal opinion is it's all about balance," Mayfield said. "There's certain risk with your natural resources when you drill it or change it. But what is the risk compared to the potential gain?"

Few are concerned that drilling would cause lasting harm to the environment.

It's what comes after drilling that bothers critics, including the attorney general.

"They wouldn't explore if they didn't want to mine," said Nixon.

Even the mining itself is unlikely to cause extensive harm to the ecosystem, said Tom Clevenger, an environmental chemistry expert at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Far more dangerous, he said, are processing and transporting lead, which have caused pollution in areas such as Herculaneum and St. Francois County in eastern Missouri.

Herculaneum is the site of the nation's largest lead smelter, owned by Doe Run. Smelter emissions have been blamed for elevated lead levels in the town's children, and about 100 families are being relocated while their property is cleaned under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doe Run spokeswoman Barb Shepard said that if drilling is approved, mining is far from inevitable.

"Just because you have exploration doesn't mean that it leads to mining," Shepard said. "It's two separate processes. We have done exploration for a number of years and have not opened a new mine."

Mark Twain National Forest officials completed an environmental assessment of the drilling last fall and recommended approval. The Forest Service is expected to make its decision in the next few weeks, and the Bureau of Land Management then would have to approve a prospecting permit.
 

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