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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.

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.

On a chilly May day, the wind is ruthlessly whipping its way up the hillside toward the great alien yellow piles of waste rock deposited from the mine. From a distance, the piles look like they're made of sand, 30 stories tall, but up close, each boulder is about as tall as a child. There are seagulls drifting overhead, and the calls of a songbird break the otherwise quiet of this forbidden territory that's locked behind a chain-link fence.

This is where the story of Kennecott's contamination begins and ends.

In 1863, not long after the Utah War, a band of the U.S. Army camped in the Oquirrh Mountains to keep an eye on the Mormons. Many of the soldiers came from California, where they had been digging for gold, so when they saw the outcroppings of Bingham Canyon, with stripes of shiny silver or glints of blue and green, they knew to start digging.

Soon, the canvas tents of prospectors dotted the canyon, while miners in heavy wool pants and white cotton shirts dug lead, copper and gold as fast as they could swing a pickax. They built hasty shanties next to the mouths of the mines, with outhouses sometimes hanging directly over Bingham Creek, where miners sent their excrement, tailings and anything they wanted to get rid of into the water. During floods, contamination overflowed the creek's banks and spilled onto the surrounding land.

"At that time, activity was not regulated, and people did what they knew how to do to get the metal and dispose of the waste in the most practical and cheapest way possible," says Mike Nelson, chairman of the mining engineering department at the University of Utah.

In 1903, a consortium of miners and businessmen formed the Utah Copper Co., consolidating a majority of the smaller mines, and in 1906, the company started using steam shovels to excavate copper ore out of an open pit. By then, the company's tailings were mixed with water and piped to a pond in Magna, but contaminated water, including excess, highly-acidic waste still made its way into Bingham Creek until about 1965, when Kennecott built a giant reservoir to collect the mine's wastewater. Even then, the reservoir leaked more than 1 million gallons of highly acidic water a day into the groundwater. This lasted for 26 years, until 1991.

Not long after, the government began cracking down on industries across the country, shortly after the formation of the EPA, passing legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970.

"When those laws passed, the mining companies and all other industries began to realize, 'We have to change the way we're doing business,'" Nelson says. "There was resistance to it. I remember mining companies in 1970 saying, 'If we have to do that, it will put us out of business.' Fifty years ago, people said none of that (following regulations) is going to make you any money. But now, they observe those principles."

The EPA became concerned about groundwater contamination near the mine and confronted the company in the early 1980s. While Kennecott denied it had anything to do with the contamination, in 1986 the state sued Kennecott, and the EPA began the process of adding Kennecott to its Superfund list — a dreaded designation that could have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup fees.

In the 1990s, the EPA found high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil in a residential area in West Jordan — on Lisonbee's street and surrounding neighborhoods — and it used federal Superfund dollars to begin cleaning up. Around the same time, Kennecott (which was now owned by the international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto) replaced its old, leaking reservoir that had pumped about 9 billion gallons of highly acidic water into the aquifer.

By 1994, despite efforts from the state government, including Gov. Mike Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to keep Kennecott off of the Superfund list, the EPA added the Kennecott north and south zones to a list of proposed Superfund sites. If negotiations did not improve, the designation would be final.

The next year, the EPA, Utah and Kennecott came to an agreement that would allow the EPA to oversee the cleanup, and for Kennecott to pay for its portion without being added to the Superfund list.

The EPA supervised cleanup of a neighborhood in Herriman and six small housing divisions clustered around Lisonbee's street in West Jordan. Non-residential — but contaminated — areas not on Kennecott or Alantic Richfield property were mostly left untouched.

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.

"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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