Changing the Health of a Community – Beyond Land Cleanup

By Mathy Stanislaus

When I went to Omaha, NE last week, I was excited for Superfund’s big announcement: the delisting of over 1,000 residential parcels from the Omaha Lead Superfund site. This was an important milestone in EPA’s overall site cleanup activities, particularly for the residents whose properties were contaminated with toxic lead from the ASARCO smelter cleaned up.

It was also important to the children of the community – our efforts resulted in measurable health improvements: the percentage of children in eastern Omaha with elevated blood lead levels have been reduced from nearly 33 percent before 1998 to less than two percent today.

By reducing blood lead levels, you change people’s lives. You protect a child for his/her entire life and you change the health of a community. As part of one of the largest cleanup projects – particularly in an urban setting – in the Superfund program with over 40,000 largely lower-income residencies, I was very proud to acknowledge the public health impacts from eliminating lead exposure (significant reduction of blood lead levels in children) and the economic benefits of the cleanup.

I spoke with several people when I made the announcement and two really stood out in my mind. One individual explained that what began as basic outreach on public health resulted in a permanent institution in the community to look at children’s health at a multiple of ways that go beyond the lead cleanup.

I also spoke with the person that fields the calls from residents to deal with their issues on a day-to-day basis. They explained how challenging the work can be but understood how EPA can deal with community concerns regarding cleanups and explain how cleanups are done in a way that is protective but also accommodates their lives.

This isn’t easy work. Nor was the cleanup. It was easy to see how challenging these resident-by-resident cleanups were and I’m proud of the work EPA and contractors have done. This cleanup created hundreds of high-paying seasonal jobs and contributed to the development of a skilled labor force with job training funded through an EPA cooperative agreement with the Omaha Metropolitan Community College. Not only are we contributing to improving children’s health, but we’re transforming the community economically.

About the author: Mathy Stanislaus is assistant administrator for EPA’s Office Solid Waste and Emergency Response.