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Old lead smelter sites focus of U.S. Senate probe

10:08 AM, May 10, 2012   |    comments
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WASHINGTON - Six U.S. senators are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to immediately examine the health threats posed by forgotten factory sites like the one in Temple Terrace, recently spotlighted by the 10 News Investigators and USA Today.

In a letter sent Wednesday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the senators urged the EPA to "take immediate action" to review unassessed sites and to set priorities for remediation, such as sites near schools or playgrounds. "It is necessary to ensure that people living near these sites, especially children, are safe," the letter said.

The letter was organized by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and was also signed by Sens. Robert Casey, D-Pa.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; and Al Franken, D-Minn.

INTERACTIVE: Explore old factory sites, photos, videos
USA TODAY: Full coverage of lead smelter investigation

"These former lead smelter sites may no longer exist, but as USA Today has revealed, residual contamination continues to pervade many communities in Ohio and across America," Brown said in a statement, noting that several sites featured in the series were in Cleveland and Cincinnati. "The EPA must move quickly to ensure that Ohioans living near these sites are aware of the potential hazards, and to place these sites on a high priority list for remediation."

Casey noted that several sites in Philadelphia were featured and said in a statement, "The USA Today investigation has confirmed that the EPA must move quickly to ensure the children and people of Pennsylvania are protected. The residual contamination poses a serious public health risk to our children."

Courtney Warner Crowell, a Merkley spokeswoman, said the senator wants families living near contaminated areas to be notified and hopes that state and federal agencies will partner to clean them up.

In a statement, the EPA said it "shares the Senators' concern for protecting Americans' health. EPA is currently reviewing USA Today's sampling data and case studies and has already begun evaluating a number of the sites on the list to determine if they pose a risk to the surrounding communities - we will continue to work with states and local partners to evaluate those sites."

A 14-month USA TODAY investigation, published last month, revealed that government regulators did little to investigate and protect the public from the toxic fallout that remains in soil around many of the hundreds of former lead factories, often called smelters, that operated during the 1930s to 1960s - before environmental regulations. The EPA was given a list of the former factory locations more than 10 years ago. At dozens of sites, EPA investigators recommended soil testing to determine what risks remained, but at most of the sites it was never done, USA TODAY found.

USA TODAY found evidence of smelting or factory work at more than 230 of the sites nationwide. The newspaper's tests of soil in 21 neighborhoods around former smelter sites in 13 states found dangerous levels of lead in many locations. The lead in the soil probably comes from a combination of sources, including factory emissions, the legacy of leaded gasoline use as well as flaking lead-based paint. Regardless of the source, the human body treats lead as a poison linked especially in children to lost intelligence, ADHD and other health problems.

Officials at some national environmental organizations have expressed outrage that the EPA has known about the factory sites for years yet failed to warn people living nearby.

The senators' letter expressed concern about the risks posed by the old factories and that "families with young children have unsuspectingly allowed children to be exposed to higher than recommended lead levels."

The letter noted USA TODAY's finding that soil testing wasn't done - as recommended - at some sites. EPA "regional offices that were directed to test legacy sites either lacked the funds to do so or, unfortunately, did not communicate this possible concern to local public health or environmental officials. Better answers to public health concerns and ways to address necessary cleanup issues are needed to ensure that families can rest assured that their neighborhoods are safe for their children."

Brown previously called for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to hold a hearing on what can be done to address threats posed by the old smelter sites. Kate Gilman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the committee, has said it will address the serious risk posed by lead at two previously planned hearings.

USA Today

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