Going Home to Manage the Final Steps of Omaha’s Historic Lead Cleanup

By Steve Kemp

About two years ago, when my boss first asked me to take the lead Remedial Project Manager’s role at the Omaha Lead Superfund Site, I had to laugh. I was born and raised in Omaha, where I graduated from Benson High School, left for four years while I was in the Army, returned to get my degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and then moved away to start my career.

Although I still go back frequently to visit family and friends, I haven’t lived in Omaha since the late 1980s. However, it seems that every few years I am drawn back to my hometown for one project or another.

I worked at the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) for many years, and one of the projects I was involved with was the Omaha Riverfront Redevelopment. At the time, the project was the largest in Nebraska’s Voluntary Cleanup Program. The project included the area for the Gallup Riverfront Campus along Abbott Drive, and extended south to the National Park Service building, and the Bob Kerry Footbridge.

The project was a cooperative effort among state, local, and federal government entities, and businesses. Thanks to my staff, the project was a big success. Now I was being asked to assume responsibility for the Omaha Lead Superfund Site, the largest residential lead cleanup site in the history of the Superfund program. I thought it seemed appropriate.

Over a Century of Lead Contamination

The soil in much of eastern Omaha was contaminated with lead from several sources, including a former paint manufacturer, and lead battery recycling, and smelting operations. The most significant source was the former ASARCO lead smelter, located on the west bank of the Missouri River just north of Douglas Street. Lead smelting began at this location in 1870 when the plant was owned by Omaha Smelting Works. The plant changed ownership over time and was owned by ASARCO starting around 1899. By 1915, the ASARCO smelter was the largest lead smelter in the country. ASARCO owned the plant for about 100 years. The ASARCO plant closed in 1997 in a separate cleanup action coordinated by NDEQ.

Workers clean up lead from residential yard in Omaha

Workers clean up lead from residential yard in Omaha

For a century, the ASARCO plant discharged fine particles of lead from the smokestacks into the air. The lead particles were transported by wind and deposited over a large area. In addition to the lead particles from the smelter, another significant source of lead in Omaha’s soil is lead-based paint that chips off of buildings and falls onto the soil near structures, such as houses and garages.

Serious Health Issue

This lead was found in the soil, and people – especially children – were exposed to the contaminated soil. Beginning in the 1970s, children in Omaha were tested and many living within the boundary of the site had very high levels of lead in their blood. This was a serious issue, because lead poisoning can cause a wide variety of health problems, including difficulty with learning and behavioral development. In 1998, the Omaha City Council requested that EPA help address the lead problem in eastern Omaha.

In 1999, EPA began collecting soil samples from properties, including child care facilities, schools, playgrounds, parks, and of course, private homes. EPA later began testing the paint on homes to determine whether the paint contained any lead. EPA also began collecting dust samples from homes to determine whether lead-contaminated dust had entered from outside.

Successes and Challenges

Example of yard before cleanup

Example of yard before cleanup

After 16 years, EPA’s work is now winding down. Over that time, EPA tested soil samples from 40,000 properties and cleaned up more than 13,000 properties that were contaminated with lead. During the busiest years, EPA cleaned up about 2,000 properties each year. Over the last few years, EPA has cleaned up a few hundred properties each year. The slower pace is largely due to increased difficulty obtaining permission from the remaining property owners to clean up their properties.

In 2010, EPA committed to completing the field work for the project by the end of 2015. When I was assigned to the project in February 2014, there were still about 1,800 properties left to be remediated. EPA had obtained permission to clean up a little more than half of these. One of the challenges was to find a way to clean up all the remaining properties and keep the commitment to complete EPA’s field work by Dec. 31, 2015.

City Takes on Final Phases

Example of yard after cleanup

Example of yard after cleanup

In late summer of 2014, EPA began discussions with personnel from the City of Omaha Planning Department to determine whether the city would be willing to take the lead on the remaining contaminated properties. EPA explained that we had done all we could reasonably do to obtain voluntary access from property owners. If EPA was going to obtain additional access, it would likely be necessary to pursue legal action to compel the remaining property owners to allow their properties to be cleaned up. After extensive discussions, the city decided to take on the final phases of work, agreeing that it would attempt to obtain permission to collect soil samples and clean up the remaining properties.

In May 2015, EPA awarded $31 million to the City of Omaha through a cooperative agreement to address these final phases of work. It is hoped that the owners of remaining properties will feel more comfortable, and therefore, more willing to grant access to the city. Only time will tell.

As EPA completes its portion of the residential cleanup activities, I am glad to have been part of this project. Although I only worked on the project for two of the 16 years, I’m grateful that I was able to make a contribution in my hometown. I am also hopeful that as the city continues with its part of the project, this will prove to be a new type of cooperative approach between EPA and local governments.

Learn more about the Omaha Lead Superfund Site.

About the Author: Steve Kemp has served for the past two years as project coordinator for the Omaha Lead Superfund Site. He’s a native of Omaha, and a professional geologist and remedial project manager for EPA Region 7.

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