Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Chapter Carries Day - Ozarks Saved

State of the States

by Ken Midkiff
Ozark Chapter Director

In a cramped conference room in the Mississippi River lowlands town of Kennett, Mo., the state conservation commission voted unanimously and without fanfare to undo all previous actions they had taken to allow a lead mining company to operate on state conservation lands. Three people in the audience clapped politely after the 4-0 decision. Crow had been eaten, and the commission members did not like the taste.

What had led up to this somewhat anti-climactic, late-summer performance was one of the largest expressions of public outrage over an environmental issue in Missouri history. The quick and decisive victory illustrates dramatically what can be accomplished by an active Sierra Club chapter, even when caught by surprise.

The commission's original decision to allow mining had been made as quietly as the motion to rescind it. At its regular monthly meeting in June, members considered a "carry in" agenda item. Without listing it on the advance agenda, as required by the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, and without reporting it in the minutes or materials released after the meeting, they had authorized the director of the Department of Conservation to negotiate a mineral exploration permit and mining lease with the Doe Run Company. The permit and lease granted Doe Run the right to operate on 7,080 acres of state lands adjacent to the Current River - a national Ozark scenic riverway.

In addition to the apparently illegal secrecy, the questionable nature of the decision was compounded by the fact that the lands opened to Doe Run had originally been purchased as part of an 80,000-acre parcel from the Nature Conservancy with federal funds. The Nature Conservancy described the parcel as "the most biologically diverse area in the state." Further, the Missouri Constitution requires that the commission manage state lands for the restoration and promotion of "fish, game, forestry and all wildlife resources."

However, the real furor was caused by the location of the proposed mining - along the Current River - the most popular canoeing stream in the Midwest. Known as the Big Springs Country and typified by heavily wooded valleys and hills, sinkholes, caves and azure-blue springs, the local watershed hosts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

Lead mining is the most environmentally degrading industrial activity in the Ozark Plateau. Huge tailings ponds litter the landscape, smelters spew toxic emissions and waste water from the mines pollutes local streams and rivers. The Doe Run Company is the largest polluter in the state, far exceeding any other industry in the annual Toxic Release Inventory.

The Ozark Chapter and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment responded to the commission's decision by filing suit in county court under the open-meetings law. The chapter - working almost around the clock for three weeks - sent out alerts to its 9,500 members, contacted other groups, urged state legislators to get involved, visited editorial boards, wrote op-ed pieces, did media interviews and talk shows and produced and ran radio ads throughout the state. During July and August, thousands of letters, faxes and phone calls poured into Gov. Mel Carnahan's (D) office, to commission members and to the Department of Conservation. The media had a field day denouncing the commission's action.

Chapter members told the governor and commission members that allowing lead mining in one of Missouri's most valued natural areas was completely unacceptable. There was simply no way to ignore such overwhelming public opposition. In the end, the commission reversed its decision.

Thanks to the Ozark Chapter's aggressive pursuit of outside grants over the last two years, they had adequate resources to carry out this emergency campaign. Without funding to print and mail alerts and to produce and run radio ads, the results would have been far more difficult to achieve, and the battle more prolonged.

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