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Remnant concrete foundations at a former smelter site in Eastern Kansas. April 3, 2002. Credit: John Miesner/USFWS.
Background: Lead and zinc ores were discovered in Cherokee County, Kansas in 1870 near the present-day location of the town of Galena. Ore bodies were subsequently discovered in various locations throughout the southeastern half of Cherokee County. Mining activities in Cherokee County continued until closure of the Swalley Mine in Baxter Springs, Kansas in 1970. Total production during this time is estimated at more than 2.9 million tons of zinc and 650 thousand tons of lead. The total number of mines which operated within Cherokee County is estimated to be in the hundreds.
Metal-bearing ores were initially processed in small smelters associated with each mine. These smelters were either log-fired, or later, coal-fired. These early smelters could extract lead from the ores, but were very inefficient at extracting the more plentiful and valuable zinc.
The discovery of shallow natural gas fields in the 1890's north and west of Cherokee County caused a profound change in how and where mined ore was processed. Mining companies found it more economically feasible to build larger and more capable smelters at the natural gas fuel sources, rather than transporting fuel to the smaller, less-capable, pre-existing smelters. So, as mining operations progressed, the number of small, site-located smelters combined into fewer yet larger and more regional operations, capable of processing several hundred tons of ore per week for both lead and zinc. More than 20 large smelters were constructed and operated from the mid-1890's until the mid-1970's (Figure 1). These sites occur in a NE-to-SW line approximately 60 miles long by 10 miles wide, and cross the contiguous Neosho River and Verdigris River Watersheds.
Environmental impacts from these smelters are similar to those of other smelters of the era. Even at peak efficiency, the loss of 15% of the recoverable metals was unavoidable. As an example, the smelter at Galena processed approximately 72,000 pounds of ore per day during the year 1883. When processing ores which contained 50% recoverable metal, this equates to a production loss of more than 5,400 pounds of metals per day. Metals were lost either through the smokestack to the atmosphere, or remained in the processed ores, or slag. Slag and other process by-products were commonly stored on-site with little prevention of the migration of metals from the site. Little if anything was done to prevent the future release of these metals from the sites after closure. Environmental effects associated with these smelter sites frequently include: soil and sediment contamination; de-vegetation of terrestrial, riparian, and aquatic habitats; food-chain contamination, reduction in aquatic and terrestrial population; and community abundance and diversity; and direct mortality.