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

Kennecott also cleaned parts of Bingham Creek, which flowed through West Jordan, and Butterfield Creek, which flowed down Butterfield Canyon to Herriman; excavated the leaking reservoir and added extra layers of impermeability; and installed an early detection leak system and pumps to keep leaking water from getting to the ground. It also built a reverse-osmosis plant to treat the groundwater and make it drinkable.

In 2008, the EPA said Kennecott had done all it was asked to do and withdrew its proposal to put the company on the Superfund list.

Kennecott officials say that by the early 2000s, the company had moved more contaminated soil from the Kennecott south zone than all of the other Superfund sites in the country combined, and it has spent more then $500 million on reclamation and remediation. That puts the site's price tag with some of the most expensive cleanups in the country, says Kelly Payne, environment manager at Kennecott.

"It's in our best interest to be as progressive as possible," says Kyle Bennett, Rio Tinto spokesman. "We have operations all over the world, and in order for us to get licenses to operate (elsewhere), we have to show how responsible we're being in other parts of the world. Kennecott really is the place people are constantly coming to, to look at best practices … so that we can get access to these other opportunities all over the place."

During the scramble to rescue residential properties in West Jordan and Herriman from ultra-high levels of lead in the early 1990s, non-residential properties were left untouched. So from where Clyde Butterfield sits, on 25 acres of dried-up farmland in Herriman, the EPA cleanup was "nothing but a farce."

Once upon a time, Butterfield used to raise pigs and cows and grow potatoes on his land. Now, with his water supply cut off because the government says it's too toxic, and a contaminated status assigned to his land because he used polluted irrigation water, the 80-year-old farmer can't grow hay and he can't sell his property, even though it is just about 5 miles from Daybreak, where some 30,000 people live. In an area where new development is occurring at astronomical rates, his land could have been worth millions, but he considers it a total loss.

"What kind of a deal is that?" Butterfield asks bitterly. "It isn't fair. It isn't right."

Butterfield says it isn't fair that the EPA didn't hold Kennecott responsible for contamination in his area of Herriman, and then opted not to clean the agricultural land because it would be too expensive. Cleaning one piece of land, and not cleaning the land next to it is counter-intuitive when it comes to public health, says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a Virginia-based grass-roots organization that works with communities with environmental problems.

"Anyone with common sense knows if you clean a yard, but don't clean the other three spots, the wind will carry it," Gibbs says. "It makes a whole lot of sense for us as a society to really clean up these places, clean them up once, and do it right. By doing that, you save the money of cleaning up again later, you save the health care costs and other costs with exposure."

When the EPA began tackling the country's most contaminated lands through the Superfund program in 1980, the policy was to assume all areas of contaminated land would eventually be lived on. But as they added more and more sites to the list — their initial goal was 400, and there are 1,190 proposed and final Superfund sites listed today — the agency ran low on money. To cut back, the EPA established guidelines in 1995 that allowed them to clean land depending on whether or not people lived there, or children would play there.

The residential standard established in Lisonbee's Bingham Creek neighborhood, was 1,100 ppm for lead, above the standard background levels of 400 ppm for naturally occurring lead in this area. At 1,100 ppm, toxicologists calculate that 95 percent of the population, when exposed to those levels, would have 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) or less of blood in their systems, leaving 5 percent of the population with the possibility of having more than 10 ug/dL of lead in their blood.

The CDC has set 10 ug/dL as the threshold that prompts public health action if it is exceeded, but some effects on children, such as loss of IQ points, loss of hearing or changes in behavior, can be detected at levels as low as 3 ug/dL.

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