Washington, DC (written by Alison Young/USA Today) -- The Environmental Protection Agency is re-examining more than 460 former lead factory sites across the USA for health hazards left by toxic fallout onto soil in nearby neighborhoods.
The massive effort, a result of a USA TODAY investigation, involves locations in dozens of states and has already identified several sites needing further investigation and some so dangerous that cleanups are being scheduled, according to records and interviews with state regulators.
In Portland, Ore., one home's yard is so contaminated with lead and arsenic that 20 tons of soil will need to be removed; three nearby homes also likely will need cleanups.
State regulators in New York have identified at least six sites in New York City and one in Syracuse that are "of particular concern," plus at least six others that need further investigation, a report says.
In Detroit, the EPA has found enough potential hazards at an old factory property lined by homes that the agency has reversed a state determination five years ago that no further action was needed.
In Illinois, two Chicago sites are now slated for cleanups and eight others have been flagged for more study.
In Cleveland, three sites are being looked at for possible cleanups and "several" more have risks needing deeper investigation.
Regulators are also testing soil in neighborhoods in Maryland, Georgia and New Jersey.
These actions are in addition to those previously reported, including a $1.26 million EPA cleanup of several homes' yards now beginning in Edison, N.J.; a cleanup recommendation at a Newark condo complex; and actions taken to address lead in the athletic fields at a New York City park built atop a smelter site.
"I'm glad that the federal government has taken seriously the reports from USA TODAY and my request to investigate the residual contamination," said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. In May, Brown and five other U.S. senators sent a letter to the EPA calling for the agency to examine the smelter sites. "Thousands of Ohioans, including infants and small children, may have been unknowingly exposed to dangerously high levels of lead left behind by former smelter sites."
EPA officials have not responded to interview requests about their national smelter initiative since Sept. 28. USA TODAY obtained a copy of the agency's smelter strategy memo under the Freedom of Information Act.
In April, USA TODAY's "Ghost Factories" investigation revealed that the EPA was given a list in 2001 of forgotten lead factories that primarily operated and shut down during the 1930s through the 1960s, before the era of environmental regulation. The EPA was warned by the researcher who compiled the list from old industry directories that many of the long-closed factories had likely contaminated the soil in surrounding properties with a toxic layer of lead fallout from their smokestacks, a risk to children playing in the dirt and putting dusty hands and toys in their mouths.
Despite the warnings, USA TODAY's examination of all 464 sites on the list found that federal and state regulators had done little to investigate many of the sites or warn thousands of families and children in harm's way. Ingesting even tiny amounts of lead dust can cause irreversible loss of intelligence, attention disorders and other health problems.
The series is available at ghostfactories.usatoday.com.
A full accounting of the status of the EPA's ongoing nationwide reviews is difficult because the agency hasn't responded to USA TODAY's Sept. 14 FOIA request to release a copy of its database chronicling the effort, nor would the EPA and some states answer questions. An employee at New York's environmental agency even asked the EPA to destroy a report about the state's site evaluations so it couldn't be obtained under open-records laws, e-mails show. The state has referred the matter to its Inspector General for investigation.
The EPA had said last spring that it planned to review only 48 of the smelter sites that were never previously assessed, plus several others USA TODAY found had been recommended years ago to undergo soil testing that never occurred. The strategy document, dated Aug. 30, shows the agency has gone well beyond that, tasking regional offices and state agencies to take another look at the adequacy of previous assessments as well, with a new eye toward factors such as whether the effects of historical factory pollution "may not have been fully evaluated," and the proximity of factory sites to homes and areas frequented by children. Potential "Environmental Justice issues" are also cited as a factor to be weighed, to ensure low-income and minority residents aren't unfairly affected by contamination.
The strategy document also says the EPA is exploring "approaches for improving the historical records search process" when regulators investigate old factory sites - an apparent response to USA TODAY's ability to document locations and operations of factories that regulators had said couldn't be found.
It remains unclear how thorough the latest round of hazard assessments will be; many are being done for the EPA by state regulators. A USA TODAY review last month of evaluations done by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection found that state regulators had focused only on what's inside a factory site's property boundaries. As a result, the state's reports recommended no soil testing or further investigation even when homes or playgrounds were directly next to a former lead factory property. State officials cited limited resources and the difficulty of proving that off-site contamination came from the old lead factories among the reasons for their approach. Other sources of lead in soil can include emissions from flaking lead-based paint and vehicles that once burned leaded gasoline.
Among the latest actions resulting from USA TODAY's "Ghost Factories" investigation:
At a home in a well-tended neighborhood that was built in the 1970s atop the site of the Multnomah Metal Co. Works, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality this month has recommended a cleanup plan that includes removing 20 tons of the most heavily contaminated yard soil and capping other parts of the property with a hard barrier to prevent contact with the dirt left behind. The estimated cost: $42,000 to $90,000, state records show. Preliminary soil tests by the DEQ indicate least three additional homes nearby, including a duplex with children in both units, also likely will need cleanups because of lead contamination, said Scott Manzano, a DEQ project manager. The state has asked the EPA for assistance this fall doing additional soil testing and any needed cleanup, he said, and residents have been advised to have their blood tested for lead poisoning. Manzano said it's possible that the cleanup of the first home and the additional testing at the others could begin as early as mid November.
Although state regulators investigated the Portland smelter site in 2003, including testing a few samples of soil and finding contamination, years passed without action until USA TODAY's soil sampling found hazardous levels of lead at the home on the old smelter site, as well as on other properties. The Multnomah Metal Co. operated from at least the early 1920s until about the mid-1960s, records indicate.
After the newspaper's investigation, the owner of the home atop the smelter site hired a contractor to test the property, with dozens of recent soil tests showing dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic. In some spots, lead levels were more than 130 times higher than residential hazard standards; arsenic levels were more than 15 times the recommended levels in some areas. The Oregon DEQ's tests in the surrounding area indicate contamination is localized to the immediate vicinity of the former smelter, Manzano said. Regulators are paying for further testing and any cleanups of the surrounding area, he said. The owner of the home atop the smelter site, who was notified years ago when the state did its initial tests, is paying for the evaluation and cleanup of her property, he said.
State environmental regulators in Illinois, who had already recommended that two old smelter properties in Chicago receive cleanups as a result of USA TODAY's investigation, said they have recommended eight more sites to the EPA as needing soil testing and further investigation.
"Our job is to protect human health and the environment, and I think that what we're attempting to do is see if there are any issues relating to these old lead smelting sites," said Bruce Everetts, assistant manager of the office of site evaluation at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Everetts declined to say which eight sites were recently flagged by his department, because the recommendations are still pending with the U.S. EPA. Federal officials, in a written statement, said the state's reports are "currently under review."
In the meantime, planned cleanups at the two former smelter sites in Chicago have been delayed by difficulties gaining access to the properties, federal officials said. The EPA said it has contacted the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue legal action to allow regulators to conduct further contamination studies at the vacant lot that once housed Loewenthal Metals, which is next to homes and near an elementary school. At the Lake Calumet Smelting site, the agency said that in September it signed an "action memo" to remove surface waste piles, excavate soil and provide a cover to guard against direct contact with contaminated dirt. But action is delayed as the agency continues to attempt to locate the last known owners of the property, which is on the shore of Lake Calumet and about a half-mile from the nearest homes.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is in the process re-evaluating the potential for hazards at all 89 former factory sites in their state. Six confirmed smelting sites in the New York City area and one in Syracuse have been determined to be "of particular concern due to possible exposure routes" in nearby residential areas with accessible soil, according to a report the state sent to the EPA this summer. At least six additional sites in New York City, Long Island and Utica are also of "particular interest" if former smelting activities were to be confirmed, the report said.
State officials declined to be interviewed about the report, which USA TODAY obtained from the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act.
In a written statement, DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said that the report was "a very preliminary draft report of our ongoing review" and that once it is finalized in the "coming months," the findings will be shared with the state's health department to determine what, if any, action is needed. USA TODAY previously reported that New York City temporarily closed four ball fields earlier this year at Red Hook Park in Brooklyn to address contamination after the city's tests confirmed that the fields were built atop an old smelter site and that high levels of lead remained in some of the soil.
The large Federal-Mogul foundry site, located next to homes, has been re-evaluated by the EPA, which has found enough potential health hazards to require even more assessment over the coming months. The federal actions are a reversal of conclusions five years ago by contractors for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The 2007 state report, without ever testing any of the residential yards that back up to the former foundry, concluded that no further action was needed at the site based on limited soil testing elsewhere in the area that contractors said didn't indicate a problem.
In contrast, the EPA's new evaluation notes that previous soil tests detected lead contamination at "significantly high concentrations" in the area. "There are number of houses adjoining the western edge of the site. ... Therefore, soil exposure pathway is of significant concern. It appears that no soil samples were collected from the properties adjoining the site," the June report said.
The EPA said in a statement that it expects its next phase of investigation to be completed by March 2013. The investigation of this site was detailed by the Detroit Free Press, which like USA TODAY is owned by Gannett, in conjunction with the Ghost Factories series. A historical Sanborn fire insurance map shows that the Federal-Mogul plant once manufactured bearings. A foundry building and a "babbiting" building are shown along the backyards of homes that faced onto Fairview Avenue. Babbitt is a type of metal that often included lead.
Paul Owens, a Michigan DEQ district supervisor, said the department stands by its original assessment of the site as being adequate to conclude there is no pattern showing airborne fallout associated with the old factory. Steve Gaut, Federal-Mogul vice president for corporate communications and government relations, said the company was not aware of the EPA's change in the status of the site until contacted by USA TODAY last week. Gaut noted that the site has been owned by the city of Detroit for many years.
"As is customary, if Federal-Mogul is contacted by the EPA or other agencies, the company will cooperate with them," he said. Federal-Mogul is a global supplier to manufacturers in the automotive and other industries.
In the neighborhood around the former Tyroler Metals site, which was featured prominently in USA TODAY's series, the city health department has tested 50 samples of soil and found that 30 exceeded the EPA's residential hazard level of 400 ppm, records show. All but one sample was above the 80 ppm the state of California has determined is needed to prevent kids who play regularly in the dirt from losing up to one IQ point. The city's soil test results found levels of contamination similar to recent tests by USA TODAY and those by state regulators in 2003. The EPA is expected to begin another round of soil testing later this month, said Pamela Cross, environment commissioner for Cleveland's health department.
Officials in EPA's Chicago regional office, in a written statement, said they are assessing whether a soil cleanup is needed in the Tyroler Metals area. They said they have been gathering information about all of the old smelter sites in Cleveland and will be "developing an assessment approach to evaluate several sites." In addition to Tyroler Metals, at least two more sites in Cleveland, where state tests in 2003 showed high levels of lead - H & L Metal and Lockport Lead - will likely receive cleanup evaluations, the EPA said.
In addition, internal EPA e-mails obtained under Ohio's open-records law show the agency has been questioning whether an earlier cleanup of another Cleveland smelter site, Atlas Metal, was adequate. USA TODAY's investigation found that when regulators evaluated such sites in the past, they often focused only on the factory property, not surrounding neighborhoods.
A city playground was directly atop the Atlas Metal site when state regulators first investigated it in 2002, and their soil tests found dangerous levels of lead. In August 2004, records show, the playground was closed for a cleanup - but none of the records indicate the city or state investigated the surrounding area.
That appears to have concerned the EPA, the recently released e-mails show. In July, an EPA emergency response branch coordinator was questioning Ohio state regulators on whether any investigation or cleanup was done beyond the Atlas Metals property boundaries. "If not, we may need to include that as part of any strategy since one of the goals is determining potential off-site impacts from former smelting operations," wrote JJ Justice, the EPA employee. The EPA didn't respond to USA TODAY's questions about what Justice found out about whether the surrounding neighborhood was ever evaluated or whether any outreach efforts are planned for people living nearby.
The Maryland Department of the Environment last month took soil samples from several public right-of-way locations in a neighborhood around the former location of Industrial Metal Melting. Spokesman Jay Apperson said Friday that the department just received results from the lab that analyzed the samples and is in the process of reviewing the data. In 2006, EPA contractors visited the site and recommended soil testing because so many homes are nearby. But the EPA never did the testing, and state regulators were unaware of the federal report until USA TODAY provided it to them earlier this year.
The EPA is finalizing a plan to begin testing soil around the former site of Evans Metals, said Larry Lincoln, director of external affairs for the EPA regional office there. The agency wants to begin work in late November, he said last week, but that is contingent on obtaining permission from area property owners in time.
Records show the former factory began operating as a lead casting plant in 1934. As of 1973, it processed 5,000 tons a year, according to an air-pollution permit application. The factory was replaced by a concrete plant in 2005 and is located in a pocket of commercial and industrial properties that are near neighborhoods.
While the factory property underwent a private cleanup before the sale to the cement company, it appears no off-site sampling was done to determine whether surrounding areas were contaminated with lead. The factory site is also known by the name Metalico-Evans.