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

"If it were me, I would prefer to live in an area where I would just have the background levels of lead and arsenic," said Utah Department of Environmental Quality toxicologist Scott Everett, who worked on assessing the contaminated lands. "But that's just me. When we clean up there is still a small risk. Any time you clean up any hazardous waste, there is always some residual left."

UDEQ and EPA say they have identified the residential areas in the Salt Lake Valley that may have had contamination from the mines, but there may still be cases of soil with higher than normal levels of lead and arsenic. In a neighborhood that was once cleaned, some property owners may not have given the EPA access to test or clean their land. In some cases, trees and sheds were left in place on yards that were excavated, leaving contaminants beneath, and those extra structures could have since been removed by subsequent owners. Areas that were not cleaned in the remediation process are now the responsibility of individual property owners.

"If I lived near a site, I think I would have a really tough time trying to figure out what was going on and what I should be concerned about, and what I should expect from the government," says Katherine Probst, a Superfund expert and former fellow with the Resources for the Future, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "I think the words we use about cleanup are misleading to the public, and that is something we should do something about because it sets up a bad situation."

At Butterfield's age, however, he's given up the fight. He's not happy that attempts to keep him safe from the soil are killing his way to make a living, and there's nothing he can do about it, he says.

"You don't fight big corporations," Butterfield says with resignation. "Little farmers don't fight big corporations."

Back in West Jordan, just down the street from Lisonbee's house, Dorthy Mecham is rumbling around in her roomy back yard on her trusty scooter. After 75 years of living, her legs just don't work like they used to.

It is another sunny afternoon in June, and Mecham, riding from one corner of the property to the other, is pointing to where the diggers came in 1991 and hauled her dirt away. In the most contaminated part of her garden, where the cherry trees used to grow, the lead content was at 4,291 ppm. But so much time has passed, the ordeal is already becoming a distant memory.

"I think it's been long enough that most people don't think about it anymore," Mecham says of her neighbors on the street where she's lived for more than 30 years. "I would have worried myself sick if I had known (the ground was contaminated) when my kids were little. … It very could have easily affected them, but I don't know. You don't know what kind of an effect it may have had on them. You can't tell how much of it is hereditary, compared to what might have been if they hadn't lived here where this was."

Then, almost as an afterthought, she says, "There has been a lot of cancer on this street."

Mecham starts rattling off the names of her neighbors on the short street, and she guesses about 10-15 people had cancer or died from it over the past 15 years. From the eight confirmed cases of the disease on the street, family members of more than half said their families had no history of cancer. The EPA and UDEQ monitor the areas where waste was left in place every five years to make sure the contamination is still contained, but the scope of the south zone, and the complexity of the history of the area's cleanup, makes it difficult to control.

"When you get a project as long as this one has been going, you get a changeover in managers," says Doug Bacon, who has overseen the Kennecott cleanup for the UDEQ. "The institutional knowledge of what has been done sometimes can get lost. … We need to develop a way to ensure the knowledge the individuals have before they leave is transferred to the next person."

During the last five-year review completed in 2009, the UDEQ and EPA discovered a number of issues that they plan to address by the end of this summer. For example, 50 houses in Mecham's neighborhood were in question as to whether they had been cleaned during the different phases of cleanup up until early June. The review also said cities and the county need adequate mapping of where the waste remains, in order to be sure houses don't appear on land that is still contaminated.

But despite the efforts of the EPA and UDEQ to clean the soil, manage the area and ensure an ongoing protective status on the contaminated ground, the residents on Haun Drive still have accepted the lingering questions in the back of their minds as a way of life.

Mecham used to love to garden, and she used her large lot to an advantage. But after she learned of the lead in her soil, even after the top 18 inches were replaced, she reduced her garden to about a dozen shallow containers sheltered in a greenhouse. Nothing she eats comes from her ground anymore — only those planter boxes.

And she's not the only one. Another neighbor says she doesn't trust her ground either, but it's better to accept what you can't change, says Roberta Anderson, whose husband died of lymphoma in 1991.

"I'm not going to move, but I won't grow any food," she says. "I would never do a garden again — not here."

Email: achoate@desnews.com

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