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Amy Choate-Nielsen: The danger down below: Cancer cluster raises questions about legacy of toxic waste in Utah soil

There's no telling when dirty land is really safe

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20 2011 11:33 p.m. MDT

47 years ago Nelda Lisonbee and her husband moved into her home in West Jordan on Wednesday, July 6, 2011. The home lay in the flood plain of Bingham Creek, which carried arsenic and lead from decades of mining operations down stream to homes like hers. 20 years ago the Environmental Protection Agency 20 began the cleanup process

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the legacy of toxic waste left by Utah mines.

A lifetime of memories flicker in the shadows of Nelda Lisonbee's back yard.

As she stands in the grass on a warm June afternoon, her long white hair pulled back into a youthful ponytail that curls down the middle of her back, Lisonbee can see the places her children played — the dirt, the canal — and of course, the image of her husband of 54 years always working the ground.

Her little white house sits at the top of a tiny hill in West Jordan, on a street lined with ramblers on one side and factories on the other. She once had a giant garden here — a small farm, really — where she grew enough food to completely feed her family of seven for five years. There were peach trees, pigs and turkeys, all keeping her family alive.

"There's no place I'd rather be than right here," she says as a cool breeze washes over her face.

But then again, sometimes she wishes she'd never lived here at all.

On this street of 20 houses, the neighbors talk about cancer — about all of the people who lived with it, survived it or died from it over the past two decades. While neighbors estimate 15 people on the street have had the disease, at least eight different cases from six families are certain — including Earl Lisonbee, Nelda Lisonbee's husband. Neighbors can't prove those cases were caused by the lead and arsenic laced in their soil by a torrent of toxins sent downstream from the looming mines above. But they still wonder, and to be safe, they stay out of the dirt.

It's been 20 years since the Environmental Protection Agency scraped a layer of contaminated dirt from the neighborhood and hauled it off to a repository on Kennecott Utah Copper property 11 miles away.

But, buried under 18 inches of fresh soil, the heavy metals are still in the ground, and long-term residents such as Lisonbee have often questioned the consequences of living on a toxic hotbed. Has it made them sicker, they wonder? Has it affected their behavior, hindered their intelligence? The questions are echoed across the West, where people from almost 50 communities live on land once contaminated by mining.

The fact is, no one knows the answers yet.

When Lisonbee and her husband moved here 47 years ago, they had no idea that about a century before, miners had dumped tailings — tiny rocks, spiked with lead and arsenic — into the creek that carried water into their yard.

Earl Lisonbee died four years ago at the age of 71, just five days after he was diagnosed with a freak cancer not known in his family. He was the happy cowboy Nelda Lisonbee called "Red," and they married each other at 17 years old.

"She really misses him," her daughter says, belying her mother's feeble smile. Those words make Lisonbee look away while she waits for the tears to pass.

The levels of lead and arsenic in her soil were too low for the EPA to warrant removing, but still, Lisonbee wonders why her fruit trees mysteriously die, cattle suddenly drop dead and why her husband got sick.

"If I'd known there was poison on this soil, we wouldn't have bought it," Lisonbee says. "I mean, good heavens, that's like a death sentence to me. But we had no idea. We didn't think anything about it."

To better understand how residents in Utah live with a legacy of environmental abuse from industries that were largely unregulated until the 1970s, the Deseret News, for the past four months, studied three sites that warranted EPA intervention: the Kennecott South Zone, which includes South Jordan, West Jordan, Herriman and unincorporated Salt Lake County; the Kennecott North Zone, which includes Magna; and Eureka Mills, which takes in the town of Eureka.

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