Good Earth: Missouri's Old Lead Belt

  • Cassandra Benton, age 22, with her daughter Joslyn Soltys, age 4, and their two dogs, Molly (the lab) and Buddy (the yorkie) in Bonne Terre, Mo. Joslyn recently tested over three times the allowable limit set by the CDC for blood-lead levels in children and as a result their yard was remediated by the Doe Run Company. The contamination was likely washed into their yard by a creek that runs alongside their home and then tracked into the house by their dogs. Benton was pregnant while still in high school and graduated early, right before giving birth to her daughter. “I was completely terrified. And honestly, I told them if they couldn’t get our yard [remediated] soon enough I would probably have to go back to Texas because I was not going to keep her around this area if it was going to be a problem for her health.”
  • Left: Reverend Charles Henrickson changes the announcement board outside of the St. Martin Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Mo. The church was originally founded and built in 1918 by Slovak miners.
Right: Thomas Donaldson, age 13, and Dalton Clubs, age 14, rest at a rodeo in Desloge, Mo. Clubs planned to compete in the peewee bull riding competition later in the evening. Although farming is not as common in the Old Lead Belt as other areas in rural Missouri, rural lifestyles such as rodeoing, hunting, and fishing are quite popular.
  • 120 Buckley Street, Park Hills, Mo. The entire street of Buckley is right beside the National Chat Pile, a massive mound of mine tailings (mud-like, usually toxic mining ore waste) that has since been remediated and partially turned into an industrial park. Because lead ore only contains 3-5% lead, the remaining material is considered waste and is deposited in large piles known as chat piles or chat dumps. Chat has the consistency of fine sand and prior to remediation by the EPA posed a serious contamination risk to the community and environment through wind and water erosion. Before chat piles were understood to pose a contamination risk, communities would often use them for recreation. 
  • The Flat River movie theatre is permanently closed on main street in downtown Flat River, now part of Park Hills. The historic downtown districts of all the Old Lead Belt towns are nearly empty with most commercial activity occurring along the interstate and other highways that wind through southeast Missouri.
  • Left: A Civil War era home in Farmington, Mo. Built in 1862 and now abandoned, electricity was added to the home in 1941. The home has been vacant since the last owner, Mr. Reeves, passed away in 1997. St. Francois County remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War, largely due to its importance as a lead producer.
Right: Earl Faircloth, age 96. Faircloth was born and raised in the Old Lead Belt and worked for the St. Joe Lead Company for 46 years in employee relations. After retiring he gave tours in the defunct Bonne Terre mine for over a decade until he could no longer navigate the stairs that lead down into the mine.
  • Jesse Holloway, age 23, replaces the constant-velocity axel on his Ford Escort in Park Hills, Mo. He carpools 75 miles each day to St. Louis in the vehicle with a neighbor to work in a welding fabrication shop. “There’s no real jobs around here.”
  • Four-wheelers race along in the off road vehicle area in St. Joe State Park. Because all of the sand is from the former tailings pond, the entire area is contaminated with high levels of lead, up to 1000ppm in some areas of the park. Lead enters the body through either consuming lead particles or breathing them in. Visitors are warned that the area is contaminated, poses a more serious risk to children, and asked to spray down their vehicles to wash off any dust before leaving the park.
The mine tailings in St. Joe State Park contain 50-70 times the amount of lead compared to Flint’s water. However, the acceptable limit for lead set by the EPA in soil is 300 parts per million, so the contamination in St. Joe State Park is only 2-3 times this limit.
  • Best friends Calin Brown, age 18, and Courtney Shelton, age 18, on the Mississippi River in Herculaneum, Mo. Both graduated from high school in 2013 and visit the river when they’re stressed. Adjacent to where they are sitting along the Mississippi River was the last remaining primary lead smelter in the United States where mined ore was smelted into pure lead. The Herculaneum smelter operated nearly continuously since its construction in 1892. It was permanently shut down on Dec. 31, 2013 due to extensive environmental, health, and safety violations. In 2002 Doe Run, the company presently operating all lead mining operations in Mo., was forced to buyout and demolish over 150 homes surrounding the smelter due to contamination. Since the smelter has been shuttered, all future lead ore concentrate mined in the United States will be shipped overseas for smelting.
  • Left: Joe Clark, Scrap Solutions, Park Hills, Mo. Scrap Solutions recycles every conceivable type of metal, including lead. Lead is the most recycled metal in the world with over 98% of lead, mostly from batteries, recycled.
Right: The original showers in the Federal Mine milling facility in Park Hills, Mo. that miners would use upon completing their shift in the mines. The milling facility is now part of the Missouri Mines State Historic Site and preserved a museum and cultural center. 
  • A refrigerator sold for scrap sits in mud at Scrap Solutions in Park Hills, Mo. Lead is the most recycled metal in the world with over 98% of lead, mostly from batteries, recycled. 
  • The Big River intersecting Highway 67, Bonne Terre, Mo. The Big River is the largest river in the area, its waters eventually flowing into the Mississippi River, with most smaller streams and creeks draining in the Big River. Lead contamination in the river is high and extremely high along the Big River floodplain. According to Dr. Pavlowsky at Missouri State University, the Big River system and floodplain is the most contaminated of all river systems in the world contaminated by lead mining. The Big River is prone to flash flooding which will carry finer and more hazardous lead contamination to the perimeter of the floodplain, contaminating the entire floodplain in the process.
  • The Elvins Chat Pile, Park Hills, Mo. Now owned by Lead Belt Materials, the chat is being repurposed and used in cold-mix and hot-mix asphalt. This is an example of non remediated chat dump where the mine waste is directly exposed the elements and susceptible to wind and water erosion. The use of contaminated chat in the production of cement and asphalt has been scientifically demonstrated to pose further contamination risks wherever it is used. 
  • Eagle Estates mobile home park just north of Bonne Terre, Mo. The average household income in the Old Lead Belt based on the 2010 U.S. Census is $29,951 with 20% of the population living below the poverty line. 
  • Faith Cowboy Church, Desloge, Mo. The Faith Cowboy Church combines elements of Christianity and cowboy culture. They meet in an old livestock barn that been renovated and converted into a church. 
  • Like cave paintings thousands of years old from a distant people, graffiti, from both miners and hobos blankets the interior of a dynamite powder shack in St. Joe State Park. These powder shacks have walls nearly a meter thick and are filled with sand in the hope that if the dynamite contained in the shack exploded the explosion would be contained by the building.
  • A display case filled with models of historic Bonne Terre buildings in City Hall in Bonne Terre, Mo. During its peak, Bonne Terre was essentially a company town run by the St. Joe Lead Company with nearly all of its residents dependent on the company for employment, meats and dairy, and dry goods purchased from various company owned stores.
  • Left: A display case filled with models of historic Bonne Terre buildings in City Hall in Bonne Terre, Mo.
Right: Shaft #25 idly rests in what is now St. Joe State Park. Beneath the surface there are over 300 miles of electric rail line that connect all of the mines of the Old Lead Belt, which were used to move mined ore to the surface. 
  • The lake room in the Bonne Terre Mine in Bonne Terre, Mo. Just enough water is pumped from the mine, through the visible pipe, to keep the top 100 feet of the mine dry. The remaining 300 feet of the mine are flooded and are internationally renowned for scuba diving due to the exceptional visibility in the water. Jacque Cousteau famously dived and filmed there in the 1980s, putting the mine on the map as a diving destination, twenty years after it ceased to function as a lead mine. 
  • Mineral Area Modeling Association members Rob Harper, Aland Joyce, and Jim Rodgers watch a remote control plane in flight at an airfield in St. Joe State Park. The park is comprised of mining land that was owned by the St. Joe Lead Company, which was gifted to the state of Mo. when mining operations ceased in the Old Lead Belt in the 1970s. 

A trailer used as an office for the Leadwood mine tailings remediation effort sits abandoned in Leadwood, Mo. Behind the trailer, part of the Leadwood chat pile is visible. Now remediated, these chat piles are off limits to the public, except for the ATV recreation area in St. Joe State Park.
  • Neil Stegail, age 35, in the sorting room of the Helping Hand thrift store in Bonne Terre, Mo. Stegail is a minister at East Bonne Terre First Baptist and the community services coordinator for the thrift store. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the per capita income in the Old Lead Belt is just over $16,000 and 20% of the population live below the poverty line. 
  • Sunset just off Main Street in Park Hills, Mo.



Photographer Benjamin Hoste explored Missouri’s Old Lead Belt, a largely defunct region of lead mining towns, meeting the people who have remained there despite the collapse of the industry. He recorded their range of opinions over the region’s fading history and the dangers of lead contamination, which in recent months have ensnared Missourian politics, as well as country-wide fears of water pollution. Read his essay for MSNBC, Traveling Missouri’s Fading Old Lead Belt, which this slideshow is a component of. To read more about the effects of lead contamination, see our feature on Flint with photos by Danny Wilcox Frazier