MAC: Mines and Communities

Lead cleanup could last 10 more years in Omaha

Published by MAC on 2009-08-10

MAC special edition on lead

The federal government could remain in Omaha another 10 years, cleaning up another 10,000 lead-contaminated yards, based on the final cleanup plan released this week.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan will govern its work in Omaha as it replaces contaminated soil in yards across the eastern part of the city. The agency says that more than a century of industrial air pollution from a once-thriving lead processing industry downtown is largely responsible.

By the time the EPA leaves Omaha, it expects to have spent in excess of $360 million, either directly or indirectly, replacing soil in almost 15,000 yards, repairing deteriorating lead paint on about 1,800 homes and deep-cleaning contaminated dust from the interiors of about 1,400 homes.

The final cleanup plan has been slow in coming, and EPA spokesman Chris Whitley said Wednesday that the agency deliberately took its time.

“We prefer to be right rather than rushed,” he said. “It’s a complex issue, and we’re quite confident (the plan) will come under considerable scrutiny. We want to be prepared for that.”

The EPA has been criticized by some of the companies that it is trying to hold financially liable, along with some political and community leaders. Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Union Pacific Railroad and a citizen’s advisory group are among those who believe the EPA’s plan does not focus enough attention on lead paint and other sources.

It’s possible that the cleanup plan could end up in court as companies dispute the government’s claim that they are liable. One of those legal challenges could come from U.P., which is among the four companies that the EPA is trying to hold liable. The others are Asarco, Aaron Ferer & Sons and the Gould battery company.

Donna Kush, U.P. spokeswoman, said the railroad has not decided what its next step might be.

“We’ve been waiting for this, we just received it ourselves, too,” she said. “We’re evaluating it, so it’s premature to comment.”

In the past, the railroad has said that the EPA has good intentions but is “wrong on the facts, science and the law.”

So far, the EPA has spent $127 million and cleaned up about 4,500 yards in Omaha. The agency ranks the city one of its top priorities nationally because of an ongoing health threat to children.

Lead poisoning is a threat primarily to young children, whose neurological systems are still developing. It can lessen intelligence and has been linked to behavioral problems.

In recent years, the agency generally has been replacing soil in about 1,000 yards a year — a record pace nationally. It will have to sharply accelerate that pace if it wants to be out of Omaha before 2019. The agency cleaned up its first Omaha yard in 1999.

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