Where does Omaha stand after 15 years of EPA cleanup?

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May 16th, 2014

Omaha, NE – In 1998 the Douglas County Health Department (DCHD) and the Omaha City Council requested help from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA formed the Omaha Lead Superfund Site in 1999, after blood tests revealed elevated lead levels in nearly 600 children.

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The site, which originally stretched from the river front and moved west to 45th street, has since been extended to include land west of 45th street.

DCHD’s Director, Dr. Adi Pour, said more than 17 percent (596 out of 3,447) of the children tested the first year had blood lead levels (BLLs) exceeding 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). She said children with BLLs higher than 10 µg/dL are at risk for serious health issues.

“What we see is developmental and behavioral changes,” Dr. Pour said. “These children are less likely to graduate from high-school. These children have developmental delays, their hearing is delayed and their sight recognition material is delayed.”

The Omaha Lead Superfund Site (Courtesy EPA)

The Omaha Lead Superfund Site (Courtesy EPA)

The issue was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, according to Dr. Pour. She said the DCHD had air monitors around lead smelters and a battery recycling center in downtown Omaha in the 1990s.

“With those air monitors we also started to do blood lead testing with children in Douglas County. What we found was that a lot of the children with elevated blood lead levels were actually in the vicinity around the lead smelters.”

The American Smelting and Refining Company, Inc.(ASARCO) reported to the EPA that its downtown facility released more than 403.9 tons of toxic air emissions from 1987 to 1997. These toxins included antimony, arsenic, chlorine, copper, silver and zinc, as well as lead. ASARCO was the number one cause of lead contamination in Omaha, according to the EPA.

Chris Whitley is the spokesman for EPA Region 7 in Lenexa, Kan. He said these toxins were emitted into the atmosphere through smoke-stacks, transported downwind in various directions and deposited on the ground surface. Of additional concern is the fact that lead doesn’t break up easily with water and it binds effortlessly to soil, according to Whitley.

“When you start to assess a site, you begin with a premise and then you let the science bear that out,” Whitley said. “Over time the Omaha lead site has become the largest residential lead remediation site in the United States.”

Whitley said cleanup of residential properties includes removing soil, replacing soil, laying down new sod and laying down grass seed.

Regions of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (Courtesy of the EPA)

Regions of the United States EPA (Courtesy of the EPA)

“Our contractors are about to start on 2014, this will be the 15th year on the job for us,” Whitley said. “By the time we get to the end of this year we will have remediated almost 12,500 properties.”

Whitley said the EPA has not only helped fix the soil lead contamination issue it also helped boost the local economy.

“Since we began in Omaha in 1999 there has been $166 million dollars in spending on cleanups at the site”, Whitley said. ”Much of that money has gone directly into the local economy through local hiring of subcontractors and other skilled workers.”

Dr. Pour said work by the EPA and DCHD have worked together to better the community as a whole. In 1998, 13 percent of the children tested in Douglas County had BLLs higher than 9.5 µg/dL. In 2012, more children were tested (17,294) than ever before, yet the rate dropped significantly to half a percent (0.5). Dr. Pour also said prevention is a key to protecting children in our area.

“They are being tested usually starting by year two of life and before that,” Dr. Pour said. “We really try for the first test for children to be done between 1-3 years of age.”

Dr. Pour said she is most proud that the work that has been done will continue to impact children all across Omaha.

“Having cleaned up those industrial sites in a safe manner is what I’m most proud of,” Dr. Pour said. “That is what people should be proud of being in Omaha. The area looks quite different than it did many years ago and this has been an effort where everyone in the community has been involved.”

Both Dr. Pour and Whitley agree that the community will be better off after the completion of the cleanup. The EPA said its work with replacing soil, sod and seed will be finished at residential properties by the end of 2015.

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