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End of an era as smelter closes in Missouri town

"We didn't do what we did to shut the plant down," Leslie Warden said. "We wanted the children of Herculaneum to be safe from lead."

Even the town's name seems to evoke a smoky past shaped by earth and fire. Herculaneum is believed to be a reference to a Roman city that was among those buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The name was also inspired by the rocky ledges that rise over the Mississippi in a shape suggestive of a Roman amphitheater.

Herculaneum's history dates to 1798, when a settler from Connecticut named Moses Austin obtained a Spanish land grant after learning of the region's mineral deposits. He began mining and producing lead almost immediately.

By the mid-1800s, southeast Missouri was known as the "Lead Belt" for its rich deposits. Herculaneum's standing was enhanced when the St. Joseph Lead Co. picked it as the site for a huge smelter, which opened in 1892 to extract lead from ore.

Primary smelting refers to that extraction process. Secondary smelting is a different practice that uses recycled scrap material.

Lead paint and leaded gasoline were phased out long ago, but lead is still used in many everyday products.

In 1994, St. Louis-based Doe Run bought the operation and with it the risks of a business that was the focus of growing health concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lead can damage the brain and nervous system, and young children are especially susceptible. Even low levels can cause behavior and learning problems and hearing loss. For adults, lead can affect the nervous system and cause kidney and cardiovascular problems.

The EPA testing showed high levels of air pollution, and more than half of preschool-age children living near the smelter had elevated levels of lead.

Signs soon went up urging parents to keep their kids from playing on streets and in parks. Herculaneum's 3,700 residents were even told not to wear shoes inside their homes.

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