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Lead has played a pivotal role in the history of Missouri. More than 17 million tons of lead have come out of the ground in the state over the last 300 years, and that has left a lasting impact on the state economically, environmentally and culturally. KBIA is exploring that history —and future—in our special series The Legacy of Lead.

Rural Missouri Town Reflects on Lead’s Impact 40 Years Later

Rebecca Smith

Forest City is a very small town of about 250 people, nestled in very small, very rural Holt County in Northwest Missouri. The whole county has about 4500 residents.

Mayor Greg Book was born and raised in Forest City, and he refers to his home as “a Mayberry type of town.”

The town is quiet and charming, but there isn’t much to it. There is a diner, open until 2:00 p.m., a historic city hall, open until 2:30, and a Drug Store Museum, open for four hours every Sunday.

It only takes a minute to drive through this little Missouri town, but four miles up the road in Canon Hollow, down a winding, two-lane county road,  sits Exide Technologies, a lead battery recycling plant that has been operating since 1975.

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA
The Drug Store Museum in Forest City serves as a homage to the history of the town.

Holt County has no other connection to the lead industry. It’s not in any of Missouri’s lead belts, and agriculture is the major way of life, not mining.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Holt County has around 1300 employed people, and Exide employs about a hundred of them.

Rick Dozier, who lives in Oregon, Missouri,  a few miles up the road, worked for the company from 1982 to 1993.

He says when Interstate 29 went through in the 1960s and bypassed both Forest City and Oregon, jobs started to dwindle. Then Exide, which was then Schuykill Metals, came in and “that made for a lot more employment opportunities again.”

The plant in Canon Hollow is a secondary lead smelter -basically a recycling facility for lead. Instead of the lead coming straight from ore, the plant breaks down existing lead batteries and re-refines the lead. This makes the lead usable for the second, third or hundredth time.

There are, of course, risks of working around lead. The major fears are ingestion or inhalation of lead dust, and with the increased risks of lead to children – taking it home on one’s clothes. But Dozier says that while he worked there, the plant was good at protecting and monitoring employees.

“All employees wore respirators, got our blood checked once a month – you could only be at a certain level. If you got high – they would take you out of the plant and work you until it went down,” Dozier said. “We had to shower every day before we left, and I know, since I left, they went to full-face respirators.”

Dozier said he worked his way from a basic laborer to a production supervisor for the secondary lead smelter during his time with the company. He added that the company took precautions to reduce any lead emissions into the greater community.

“The bag house was there to collect all the dust that come out in the air, and they put in water treatment plants when I was there.”

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA
BJ Ripley is a longtime Forest City resident and stills lives in a historic home on the main drag through town.

Billie Jo Ripley, or BJ as her friends call her, is a long-time Forest City resident and has worked at numerous area newspapers over her 86 years. She says that, at first, people near the plant in Holt County had some fears and reservations.

“There would be certain colors that come out of the chimney, some times it was white and some times it was like smoke, and some people thought they let some of this contaminant out in the air at night,” Ripley said.

She added that some of the people living in Canon Hollow fought the plant “tooth and toenail.” There was a small coalition against the plant in the 1980s, which many residents claim was run by an outsider, that staged some small protests.

But memories of the protests, beyond that they existed,  seem scarce, and Ripley said, “apparently it didn’t impress me”

Throughout this time, agencies, both state and federal, monitored the plant to ensure that Schuylkill, now Exide, met federal regulations. Dozier recalled the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources being at the plant a lot.

Ripley said that once things like the water treatment were added, the community’s relationship with the plant improved.

“It isn’t all bad anymore, like it was when it first started,” Ripley said. “The scare is over.”

But that doesn’t mean that the regulatory oversight is. Back in 2014, a lawsuit was filed by the state of Missouri against Exide Technologies. The lawsuit stated that the plant, as the “only stationary source of lead air contaminants in Holt County,” was in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Kyra Moore is the director of Missouri’s Air Pollution Control Program, which is the enforcer of the Clean Air Act in Missouri, and she said this violation was due to a change in federal standards.

In 2008, the lead standard, or acceptable about of lead particulate in the air, changed from 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter - a 90 percent reduction.

“That is quite a change,” Moore said. “We actually sat down with Exide and said, ‘Okay, let’s work together and figure out how to do this quicker – come into compliance - demonstrate compliance.’”

After this sit down, Exide agreed to make some infrastructure additions to meet these new standards.

According to a written statement from the company, “Exide has completed all the projects, procedures, and practices required by the Consent Judgment and the Consent Judgment requirements remain in effect.”

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA
The historic city hall serves as city hall, a community space and the home of the Holt County Music Hall of Fame.

As an employer and as an owner of about 600 acres in Holt County, Exide pays several area taxes on the land – one for schools, a senior fund and others.

Rick Dozier said he considers the plant a blessing.

“I hope they stay there forever and keep people employed - bringing money to this county,” Dozier said.

No one seems to really know why Schuylkill Metals, now Exide Technologies, chose Holt County in the first place, with its lack of lead connections. Some speculate that maybe it was because of cheap land prices or easy access to the railroad, but BJ Ripley has some ideas of her own.  

“I’ve always thought they wanted an out-of-the-way place,” Ripley said.” I have always just thought maybe it was that controversial lead problem, and they thought they’d stick it in Canon Holler in Holt County and nobody would ever find it.”

Ripley said she is not against the plant, but also added that no one really gives it much mind anymore, and she added that if Exide up and left tomorrow, not much would change in her little town of Forest City.

As Ripley put it, “there’s not much of us left to hurt, not much of a town.”

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