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 11:00 p.m. MDT

Each location gives an insight into how toxic land in America, and especially the West, is cleaned. In Eureka, residents say the mass cleanup of high levels of lead in their soil was unnecessary. In Magna, some residents are embroiled in a present-day battle against Kennecott's plans to expand, which will shape the future of their town. In West Jordan, residents still question whether their soil, which was replaced 20 years ago, is safe.

The EPA tackles the country's most toxic areas to try to protect people living nearby from getting sick. Originally, the agency paid for cleanups with money from the federal government's Superfund. Though that money has diminished since 1995, the name stuck, and today, "Superfund" sites refer to areas that are badly contaminated and a threat to environmental and human health.

According to a state-sponsored California study in 1997, pregnant women who live within a quarter mile of a Superfund site have a greater risk of having a baby with a birth defect, including heart defects and spina bifida. A 1996 study of soil in Lisonbee's West Jordan neighborhood found that exposure to arsenic in the area, before the cleanup process was complete, "may have resulted in a moderate increase in an individual's lifetime risk of cancer." And exposure to high amounts of lead can be linked to miscarriages, heart problems and autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a recent study by the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The EPA blamed the contamination on Kennecott, as well as Atlantic Richfield — which owned a small lead mine near Kennecott — and their predecessors, who for almost 50 years dumped bits of lead, arsenic, chromium and copper into Bingham Creek.

In the meantime, toxic waste from Kennecott's evaporation ponds in South Jordan leached into the groundwater to the tune of 1 million gallons a day, spawning a 72-square-mile plume of contaminated water that existed until the company quit using the ponds in 1991.

In 1994, Kennecott scooped the acid-leaching boulders and poisonous chunks of rock from the ponds and hauled them to a repository, burying what was left under 3 feet of clean dirt, and planted a field of grass on top. The site was cleaned so thoroughly, with negligible levels of lead left in the ground, that it does not require any further involvement by the EPA. In 2004, Kennecott launched a new 4,200-acre master-planned community, called Daybreak, on about 540 acres of the site, with the EPA's blessing.

But in Lisonbee's neighborhood and surrounding area about six miles away, the EPA determined that the soil was safe, even though the levels of lead were 10 times higher than at Daybreak. The agency replaced 6 inches of dirt under lawns and 18 inches in garden areas, and they come back every five years to see if the city is making sure no one disturbs the contaminated soil below.

When the EPA initially arrived on Lisonbee's street, it tested the children and found some already had dangerously high blood-lead levels. But beyond that, no one has returned to test the long-term effects on the community. That's why, any time there's an ailment, neighbors who know of the cleanup wonder if there is a connection to the land.

To understand the long-term effects of living on toxic land, Lisonbee's neighborhood is a good place to start. It is a place where people have been living on once contaminated land (now declared clean) long enough to tell the tale of Superfund sites in America and watch as history unfolds. The questions Lisonbee has are the same anyone would ask if they knew their soil was contaminated, and yet, 20 years after the EPA arrived, she still wonders — is my family safe?

Experts who study Superfund sites are concerned that long-term health studies aren't part of EPA's program, and they wonder if the political climate stunts how well areas are cleaned across the country. How clean are "clean" Superfund sites, and what longevity will clean sites have? There are unknowns, critics say, and if those concerns are not resolved, the answers that may one day be uncovered might be alarming — and devastating.

Eleven miles southwest of the Lisonbee's house (which is near Bangerter Highway and 8600 South) is the massive Kennecott copper mine — one of the largest open pit mines in the world; so large in fact, that it's visible from space.

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