toxic metals

Saving Endangered Mussels in Missouri’s Big River

By Cody McLarty

When you want to spend a relaxing day outdoors in the Heartland, few places are more peaceful than Rockford Beach Park, just northwest of House Springs in east central Missouri. A low head dam, built in the late 1890s to power the now nonexistent Rockford/Bonacker Mill, still stretches partway across the Big River. This aging dam creates a tranquil waterfall that has enticed patrons of the Jefferson County Parks system for decades.

Photo of old Rockford/Bonacker Mill, near present location of Rockford Beach Park.

Photo of old Rockford/Bonacker Mill, near present location of Rockford Beach Park. (Courtesy of Jefferson County, Mo. Library, Northwest Branch, Special Collections)

Other patrons of the Big River also enjoy the benefits provided by the Rockford Beach dam: a vast, diverse community of freshwater mussels. Yet, unbeknownst to many, just below the babbling waters of the Big River, these abundant mussel species are becoming more endangered every day.

A visual inspection of the dam conducted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) in January 2015 found that it had experienced heavy deterioration and was in a state of partial failure. Sections of the stone had washed away, leaving voids beneath the surficial concrete shell. Moreover, MDNR noted that if no action was taken, the dam would eventually experience a total breach.

EPA was placed in charge of this project because if the dam were to fail completely, it would result in the release of stored sediment behind the dam, which is contaminated with mining-related metals, and just 200 yards downstream from the Rockford Beach dam are three federally-listed, endangered mussel beds.

Eastern portion of Rockford Beach dam

Eastern portion of Rockford Beach dam

I’m a remedial project manager in the Special Emphasis branch of the Superfund program at EPA Region 7, and was assigned to the Rockford Beach dam project in September 2015. I had been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on several other projects through interagency agreements, so I was familiar with the process and had pre-established contacts within the USACE in the St. Louis area.

A 2009 study of freshwater mussels throughout the Big River found a total of 2,198 living specimens representing 33 unionid species at 19 study reaches in the river. Nine species of state conservation concern were found, including three federally-listed species (Pink Mucket, Lampsilis abrupta; Scaleshell Mussel, Leptodea leptodon; and the recently listed Spectaclecase, Cumberlandia monodonta). The majority of the mussel population in the Big River occurs downstream from the Rockford Beach dam.

A breach or failure in the remaining section of the dam would release trace elements of lead, arsenic, barium, cadmium and zinc – all elements routinely found around older mining and industrial sites. As benthic, filter-feeding organisms, freshwater mussels are directly exposed to contaminants in sediment and surface water.

That kind of significant release would severely impact a large number of freshwater mussel species located downstream, and the Big River has an incredibly diverse mussel community.

Apart from biological impact to the endangered mussel beds, the failure of the Rockford Beach dam could present a myriad of other environmental and safety issues to the surrounding area. That contaminated sediment, if released, would be made available downstream to the floodplain and further into the Meramec River. Those deposits could disperse a concentrated volume of lead into the environment, making it a much larger problem to remediate in the future.

Construction to stabilize western portion of Rockford Beach dam

Construction to stabilize western portion of Rockford Beach dam

In January 2016, EPA entered into an Interagency Agreement (IAG) with USACE to conduct a removal action to stabilize the western portion of the dam. The eastern portion of the dam had already partially failed, which now allows for fish passage. This partial failure was not significant enough to cause the release of built-up contaminated sediment. Under the IAG, the USACE planned, designed, and constructed an interim solution to stabilize the western side of Rockford Beach dam.

Many other state and local agencies provided support to the project, including local fire and police departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, and MDNR’s Dam and Reservoir Safety Program.

In Superfund, we often work on projects that can span a lifetime, so it’s nice to be able to start a project, see it run smoothly, and witness the completion. It’s not often that you get to work on a project that allows you to build strong and lasting relations with a community, and at the same time, protect and safeguard endangered species.

About the Author: Cody McLarty serves as a remedial project manager in EPA Region 7’s Superfund program. He mainly works in the southeast Missouri mining district. Cody has a bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Texas at Austin, and a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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When In Doubt, Throw It Out Safely—Part 4

For several weeks, my youngest daughter has been trying to persuade me to take her to one of her favorite stories to buy some “best friend” charm bracelets or necklaces to give to her friends at the end of the school year. I had been postponing the trip to the mall simply because I knew it was going to become a costly endeavor. Although the trip to her favorite store was intended to strictly buy the gifts for her friends, I knew that once we were in the door she would quickly identify several “must-haves.” In other words, the trip that originally was going to cost less than $25 could quickly turn into a three digit shopping spree if she had her druthers.

In this case, my procrastination paid off. Why, you may ask? Well, I just saw a blog by the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalling “best friend” charm bracelets due to high levels of cadmium! Although I was not planning on going to store in question to get those bracelets, now I definitely was not going to get those items. As parents, how can we be sure that similar children’s jewelry is not equally contaminated with cadmium or other toxic metals?!

Back in February, I wrote several blog entries on this very issue—the use of  cadmium and lead in cheap toy jewelry. The problem is that the use of these toxic metals, while illegal, seems to be expanding to imported children’s custom jewelry, in general, even when it’s not that “cheap-looking.” We’re no longer talking of those pieces that look like trinkets. Some of this children’s jewelry is actually quite attractive. It’s hard for a child to understand that the cool items can actually be harmful to their health.

Bottom-line, the advice remains the same. Lead and cadmium are both harmful to children’s health. Since children tend to put many things into their mouth, we can’t afford to have these toxic items lying around. These objects should be eliminated from a child’s environment. Monitor recall notices regularly. With increased awareness, we can better protect our children.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Yes, Throw It Out—Safely

In last week’s blog “When In Doubt, Throw It Out!,”

I discussed the use of toxic metals in some toy jewelry and metal trinkets produced overseas. As the title suggested, I recommended if you were concerned over the potential toxicity and risks of these toys, the best thing to do was to dispose of these products. However, I didn’t address another legitimate concern: is it safe for the environment to simply throw these articles in the trash? Well, the answer is yes. I will explain why.

First of all, I would like to thank two individuals, Mauricio D’Achiardi and Joan, for their comments last week. They actually posed the question regarding the proper disposal of these toy trinkets. Since I didn’t have an answer, I consulted with our experts in the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. The guidance is: “Consumers can check with their local recycling facility to see if they collect these kinds of contaminated jewelry and trinkets. To find a local recycling facility, they can go to www.earth911.com . If their local recycling facility doesn’t take these articles, consumers can go ahead and throw them in the trash. Our modern landfills are made to be able to hold such contamination without leaking it into the environment.” So, we can dispose of these safely.

For more information on the disposal of waste, please visit our Website. For information on product recalls and keeping people safe in and around the home, visit the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Neighborhood Safety Network. And please keep those comments coming. We all can learn from this Greenversation.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.