EPA reaches milestone in lead removal

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December 15th, 2011

Omaha, NE – The Environmental Protection Agency announced today it has reached a milestone in its work to clean up lead-tainted soil in the city.

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Toxic lead has now been removed from 10,000 yards in Omaha. The EPA has been trucking in fresh soil from central Iowa to the city for the past decade, filling in yards that have tested positive for high levels of lead. The cause of the contamination: the lead refinery Asarco, which operated for over 100 years on the Missouri riverbanks. The smelter spewed clouds of lead-tainted smoke over the city for decades. And in 1997, the plant closed. Since then, the EPA has been working to clean up contaminated areas.

The EPA has cleaned up 10,000 yards in Omaha since 1999, replacing lead-contaminated soil with fresh soil trucked in from Iowa. (Photo credit Douglas County Health Department)

Questions have been raised as to whether lead in soil poses a significant danger to human health. Lead has to be ingested to be poisonous. And critics of the EPA program have said lead-based paint poses a far greater health risk. In a statement, EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said the project has been successful, and has reduced blood lead levels from 33 percent to two percent. Reporting by KVNO News and The Reader in 2010, however, showed blood lead levels dropped off steeply after the smelter closed, and lead was no longer in the air, but have since declined at about the same rate as the national average.

EPA has invested in remediating paint hazards in the past few years, and is now combining soil remediation with repairing chipped paint. The total spent on the project so far: $247.9 million. The EPA says $9.7 million has gone to the City of Omaha for paint stabilization, and $3.9 million to the Douglas County Health Department for interior home assessments. Brooks said the project overall has “kept families healthier, secured property values in the city’s heart,” and helped create high-paying jobs.

Lead poisoning can cause behavioral health problems, diminished IQ and kidney damage. The EPA also classifies lead as a cancer-causing agent. The EPA expects the project to be complete in 2015.

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