Upon walking into Wheatley Elementary’s gymnasium on Thursday night, residents who live near the contaminated, abandoned industrial park dubbed the Black Leaf chemical site (for an insecticide that used to be manufactured there) were handed six informational sheets.
Four of which would make anyone who grew up near the industrial park (now an EPA superfund site) gulp and grimace. The flyers highlight in bold text the dangers of certain chemicals found onsite and at dozens of surrounding properties.
“ … At high levels, inorganic arsenic can cause death. Exposure to lower levels for a long time can cause a discoloration of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts …”
Or, aldrin and dieldren:
“ … Aldrin and dieldren build up in the body after years of exposure and can affect the nervous system ..”
Another detected chemical, Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), can cause cancer.
So, it’s no wonder that even before EPA’s on-site coordinator for Black Leaf, Art Smith, could click on the first slide in his background presentation, hands shot up with concerns.
Smith was in a really difficult spot. The community meeting was held to field concerns and educate neighbors about contamination in the area seemingly tied to Black Leaf. But the EPA hasn’t concluded enough testing to determine the scope and severity of contaminants outside Black Leaf’s 29-acre property. (For a history on Black Leaf and the reasons behind why it sat contaminated for decades, see this January LEO article.)
They plan on doing more testing, but naturally neighbors — many of whom are older, long-time residents of this Park Hill neighborhood — want answers now.
Denise Dickerson, who lives on a street where contaminants were detected, can’t help but wonder if her daughter’s sickle cell anemia can be traced back to playing in the alleys and eating vegetables out of their garden for 20 years. And then there are her dogs, a couple of them, that over the years have mysteriously fallen ill.
“There’s something ugly going on, I can feel it,” she tells LEO.
Smith told his audience that the concentrations of all chemicals (lead, arsenic, BAP and dieldrin) were discovered in small amounts at about 50 properties tested around the site. (The EPA had hoped to test roughly 80 properties, but only received 52 letters of permission.)
“No one is at great risk due to releases detected,” he said.
Still, nine of the 50 properties tested at a level where the EPA recommends cleanup. The other properties tested at the low end of EPA’s’ “acceptable risk range,” not the most comfortable terminology for pregnant mothers, elderly, or really anyone who lives in the area.
(To make this more confusing, state levels prompting cleanup are actually more stringent than the EPA’s. Some advocates, including Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council, hope the EPA will follow state guidelines when determining the extent of remediation.)
At one point, Bob Safay, from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, stated that if someone wants to be 100 percent sure that they’re not at risk for exposure, they should no longer garden and, if they have children, put some sort of covering down in their yard so that the child doesn’t run around barefoot in the dirt. (Lead, which can damage the nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system, was of particular concern.)
Of course, that’s being overly cautious. But the unknown realities mixed with severe precautions created palpable frustration.
As a way of trying to quell fears of lead poisoning, Safay pointed out that many urban areas struggle with high lead level concentrations in soil, not just Park Hill. (According to the 2011 Metro Housing Coalition’s State of Housing report, lead levels are highest in Portland/Shawnee and the Highlands.)
Stephanie Reed, who grew up near where the trucks pulled in and out of the industrial site, joined a chorus of elderly residents hoping the government could help pay for “human testing.” She’s curious whether her early years spent near Black Leaf may or may not be linked to current ailments.
They were told to go to the doctor. Free testing is only available to children at the county health department.
While one resident felt the EPA was “dragging their feet,” the pace of a government cleanup is slow.
Still, Smith says some tangible steps have been taken to secure the Black Leaf site. They’ve put up screens to try and prevent any further storm water runoff from the site seeping into nearby yards. And they’re open to hearing from residents who have deep knowledge of the community. Perhaps they can point to areas they think may have suffered some contamination.
“We are going to work with you to solve this problem,” Smith said.
The EPA has identified three parties who may be held responsible for some of the cleanup costs, including Exxon Mobil.
Sixty-year-old Marvin Hayes, a laid back retiree, whose property sits right next to the site, is keeping a level head about things. He’s curious about how contaminants have spread and in what direction. But he has faith that the EPA will do their job to bring this to light.
“I’m just waiting on the next phase,” he tells LEO.