herculaneum

Fencing surrounds a patch of grass that used to be a neighborhood in the center of Herculaneum, Missouri. A sign in the grass reads, "No Trespassing. Lead Contamination."
Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA/Side Effects Public Media

Bill Haggard is the mayor of Herculaneum, Missouri, a town of 4,000 about a 30 minute drive south of St. Louis. He’s also the fire chief, president of the historical society and a retired teacher, among other distinctions, although he identifies first as a “lifelong resident.”

For more than a century this town was built up around the lead smelter that sat along the Mississippi River. Today, though, most of the houses remaining in the hollowed out center of town are marked in spray paint with a bright orange ‘X.’

“If they have an ‘X’ on them they’re coming down,” Haggard says while driving by houses slated for demolition.

One of two bills that would limit punitive damages in lead contamination cases is on its way to Governor Jay Nixon (D).

Jacob Fenston / KBIA

Herculaneum, Mo., a small town on the bluffs above the Mississippi River, was always a company town.  The company, Doe Run, is the largest lead producer in North America, trucking in lead from Missouri's rich mines to a 120-year-old smelter on the river.  For 25 years, the smelter didn't meet federal air standards for lead, and now, after decades of battling government regulators and angry parents, Doe Run is leaving town at the end of next year.