WEBB CITY, Mo. — As Webb City works to attract new businesses, it has a valuable carrot it can hold out: former mine waste sites.
Excavation of lead and zinc in the first half of the 20th century left numerous tracts inside the city limits and elsewhere in the region with health and environmental hazards. But today, thanks to cleanup work by the Environmental Protection Agency that continues elsewhere in Jasper County, those lands are now considered among the safest in town.
“We don’t consider it marginal land — it’s premium now,” said Lynn Ragsdale, mayor of Webb City. “We would say to anyone looking at it: This is the best you’re going to find in the area.”
Businesses are taking heed. Construction is underway on a swath of land on the city’s east side, where farm supplier Atwoods is building a new outlet, and a new auto shop and duplexes are in the works. Farther south, another piece of city-owned former mining land is now part of King Jack Park.
Webb City isn’t the only one seeing its landscape transformed by the ongoing cleanup. Travelers on North Schifferdecker Avenue on the west side of Joplin have watched in recent months as crews removed mine waste and covered roughly 50 acres of scarred land with clean soil.
Known as the Snowball site, it is one of the largest remaining pieces of the Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt — nearly 7,000 acres in Jasper County that received Superfund designation because it was contaminated by roughly 10 million tons of mining wastes.
Roughly 1,600 acres of that land have been cleaned and are ready for development, but the EPA says it still has a ways to go.
The agency’s cleanup contract expires in 2020. Steve Kemp, who oversees the Superfund work for the EPA, says cleanup will continue for at least that long at other areas around Carl Junction, Waco and elsewhere.
“A tremendous amount of work has been done in the area, but there are still several outlying areas in almost all the mining subsites where we have not been able to get access to land,” he said.
Unlike redeveloped land in Webb City, which is owned by the city, the Snowball site is owned by several private individuals, including Mark McDonald. He said his father purchased the land in the 1960s with the intention of selling the mining waste byproduct left behind by previous operations.
The site itself was not mined, McDonald says, but mine wastes from other areas was brought there during World War II for reprocessing because newer technology allowed mining operations to extract previously inaccessible metals. The lead was used in everything from bullets to paint.
Because the byproduct of that process contained fewer heavy metals, the Snowball site was a low priority when the EPA launched its cleanup mining waste sites in 2007.
“It was not as contaminated as the chat piles,” McDonald said. “They reran the old chat piles because the old milling processes did not get the ore out of it. It was a unique material compared to the other chat piles.”
The contaminated waste is being buried on portions of the Snowball site, with the remainder transferred to a repository on Malang Road.
Some of the landowners contacted recently, including McDonald and Spencer Aggus, said they don’t have immediate plans to redevelop the site. In the meantime, officials have agreed to leave it as pastureland.
“It could be commercial, agricultural or multi-family, depending on the results,” said Aggus, who jointly owns a portion of the property with other members of his family.
EPA officials say they are still unsure how much of the Snowball site will be needed as a repository. The property owners have fewer redevelopment options where contaminants are buried.
In total, the site covers roughly 50 acres. About half of the area, which sits to the east of Schifferdecker Avenue, has not yet been cleaned up
The cleanup of mine waste in Webb City, Snowball and elsewhere in Jasper County follows a residential cleanup effort that led to the replacement of thousands of contaminated yards.
It had a big impact: When the yard cleanups began in the early 1990s, 14 percent of children tested in the area had elevated blood-lead levels, according to Tony Moehr, director of the Jasper County Health Department. Ten years later, that number had dropped to around 2 percent, bringing the area into line with blood-lead levels measure in children elsewhere in the state.
Nonetheless, that effort, too, is incomplete, Kemp says. Some property owners did not cooperate during the initial phase or simply slipped through the cracks.
“There are still residential properties to be addressed,” Kemp said. “There are some property owners now who are very interested.”
According to tests conducted by the Jasper County Health Department, 513 properties in the county still need soil remediation and include both residences and abandoned properties. They are clustered around mine waste sites, though high lead levels can also be caused by other sources.
In some cases, the lead in question is buried underground and poses no immediate threat. In others, it sits on the surface, according to Moehr.
County officials can’t require homeowners to fix contamination in their yards, but local laws in Joplin and the county require homeowners to order a lead test before they build a new home in a potentially contaminated area.
EPA officials are now preparing a study of contamination in the Spring River basin, a watershed area that includes Turkey Creek and Center Creek. Rain water has carried heavy metals from mining operations into local waterways. Kemp says a report about pollution in the watershed will be complete within a year or two, to be followed by an official plan of action.
The main challenge for the EPA is the complexity of a problem that spans multiple state borders and EPA regions.
“It involves a number of entities including Indian tribes,” Kemp said of the watershed cleanup. “It’s been a very long process coordinating with all the interested parties to begin to arrive at an understanding of the full magnitude of the problem.”