The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 17, 2013

Webb City applies for federal funding to turn mined land into wetlands

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

WEBB CITY, Mo. — For years, Webb City leaders have been in discussions with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources about how to handle the area’s zinc and heavy-metal contamination.

They may have found an answer in the form of a 1,500-acre project north of town that, if funded, would not only lessen the effects of the contamination, but could change a previously barren area into a prime nature attraction.

City Administrator Carl Francis said the city responded to a recent request for a proposal issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that involves $3 million in funding. The proposal focuses on establishing habitat areas in Newton and Jasper counties.

The funds are being made available through a natural resource damage settlement with ASARCO, a mining company that operated in the region in the 1900s. The trustees of the settlement have identified an array of natural resource injuries that have been linked to the release of hazardous substances by ASARCO’s mining operations. Those releases have damaged terrestrial, aquatic and groundwater resources.

Much of that damage occurred along Center Creek and Ben’s Branch between Webb City and Oronogo.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Francis said. “We’ve been in discussion with DNR about our zinc issue, and we started our own construction crew that for the last year has been replacing sewer mains all over town.”

An inflow and infiltration study showed that the lines aren’t 100 percent leak proof and after heavy rains, zinc levels go up.

“We’ve been exploring options of how to mediate that a little bit; we know we’re never going to get rid of it, but we have to find methods to help it,” Francis said.

They found hope in one word: Wetlands. Wetlands are areas where shallow water covers the soil all year or for varying periods during the year as seasonal rains occur. They differ greatly across the U.S. according to types of soils and climates.

Ecologists have documented several environmental benefits afforded by wetlands, including the purification of water, flood protection, groundwater recharge and shoreline stabilization. They also provide habitat for numerous species of birds, aquatic insects, reptiles and amphibians, including many endangered species that cannot live anywhere else.

Francis sees wetlands as playing a critical role on the former mined land, because they can trap sediments and excess nutrients and pollutants like heavy metals, thereby improving water quality.

“In Webb City’s case, you can treat zinc with wetland areas because the vegetation in a wetland will absorb it before it gets to the creek,” Francis said. “We know it won’t solve the problem, but it will help.”

Moreover, he sees it as a way to turn land into a draw for nature enthusiasts, bird watchers, university researchers, walkers, wildlife photographers and others who have a relationship with the environment, either personally or professionally.

“The chance to turn a large area that has been a barren wasteland for many, many decades into something productive like this is pretty significant,” he said.

The city’s proposal, submitted by Allgeier, Martin and Associates, of Joplin, calls for building a wetland of roughly 100 acres, and for allowing the remainder of the 1,500 acres to be developed into habitat for wildlife, walking trails and picnic areas.

The city owns about 300 acres in the area. Of that acreage, about 100 acres would fit into the project. About 50 privately owned properties also are included in the identified area; none have structures on them. The majority of the acreage is outside the city limits. All property owners have not yet been notified, Francis said.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked cooperatively on the project, Francis said. He anticipates a response from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August.

“If we are accepted, they will establish the habitat, and that will take some time — probably three to five years. They will get it to the level in which they are comfortable, and then we’ll submit a subsequent RFP for someone to maintain it,” Francis said.

That person would be employed by the city. The area likely would fall under the direction of the Parks & Recreation Department.

“That’s down the road, though,” Francis said. “Everybody’s excited about it. Let’s just say we’re cautiously optimistic.”

“We’re confident we submitted a quality proposal. We feel we are in a position to provide long-term sustainability to this project at a cost and benefit that nobody else can really provide that will benefit the city in many ways — not just with habitat area, but real opportunities for recreation as well.”

Natural resource restoration

The Webb City-Oronogo project is one of three requests for proposals advertised in May by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The deadline for the proposals was July 12.

One request for proposal involves projects that can ameliorate injuries to migratory birds and endangered species resulting from EaglePicher mining and smelting activities around Joplin. Priority would be given to projects that improve or protect riparian migratory bird habitat. Approximately $235,000 will be available for the projects.

The Upland Compensatory request for proposal sought applicants that can implement successful programs of prairie acquisition and restoration projects in and around Jasper and Newton counties. Approximately $750,000 from the settlement with ASARCO, a mining company, will be available for those projects.

The Primary Jasper Restoration Acquisition request for proposal sought applicants that can acquire land that has been most impacted by mine waste, and manage that land for wildlife habitat. Lands that are prioritized under this proposal are areas that have been subject to the EPA remedial cleanup process or will be in the near future. Approximately $3 million will be available for the projects.