Omaha making progress on lead Superfund cleanup

It closed in 1997, but the damage was already done.
There is still work to be done.
Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 10:56 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 30, 2022 at 11:02 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - American Smelting and Refining Company’s smelting facility in Omaha was arguably the worst lead polluter in the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency said as much when it designated the Omaha Lead Superfund Site on a seven-zip code area surrounding the facility along the Omaha Riverfront. It closed in 1997, but the damage was already done.

Little spots of earth, like one along Omaha’s historic 24th Street corridor, are popping up more and more. Community gardens. But this one has a different history. Lead once poisoned the soil.

“This property here was acquired by a community church and they were interested in doing some community gardening here,” City of Omaha lead hazard program manager Steve Zivny said. “They checked the website and saw that there was no sampling history or anything on this lot, they inquired with us, and we were able to sample the property and find out that, yes, in fact, we did have some (lead) contamination here that we were able to clean up and address this year.”

The website he mentions is the Omaha Lead Registry, where properties tested over the past two decades are listed. He recommends anyone who is a new homeowner or looking to purchase land in the metro check this site first. The EPA continues to fund the cleanup and will do so until the job is done. To date, over 13,464 properties in Omaha have been “remediated” according to EPA Region 7. That leaves less than 600 known properties to be cleaned up, and if more are found, those will be cleaned up, too.

For those who don’t know this infamous Omaha history, in the late 1990s, the community raised concerns over the city’s unusually high levels of lead in children. According to the EPA, more than 25% of children in Douglas County tested at dangerous levels for lead in the late 1990s.

ASARCO operated a lead smelting plant along the Omaha riverfront for 125 years. The cleanup effort continues and covers 27 square miles emanating from that spot.

In 1998, a zone covering seven zip codes around the site became part of the nation’s largest EPA lead superfund cleanup. The city itself has experienced a rebirth in the area immediately surrounding the property, where the final remains of the site remain buried under six feet of concrete, enclosed in an “environmental burrito.” That process remains controversial, but the city has made the most of the cleanup around it. The CHI Health Center, Gene Leahy Mall, and Charles Schwab Field all sit on land once contaminated by the emissions of the smelting facility.

Millions were paid by the company, and other polluters in the area, to service the fund to clean up homes and properties that test for dangerous lead levels. But the EPA had hit a wall of sorts, trying to get the remaining properties to allow for testing. Distrust of government and aging residents with no children at home didn’t want their yards turned upside down. Others in immigrant communities were unsure of what to do. So the city took over from the EPA in a first-of-its-kind relationship and has since made some headway. They hope to clean up 100 properties a year moving forward.

“We hoped when we took this over that the local presence would have a bigger success rate and and I feel we have,” Zivny said, praising the ongoing efforts of the EPA in funding and assisting the work. “We’re able to connect more on a local level, we’re able to take the time to sit down with folks, we’ve created public service announcements and we’re doing a lot of education.”

Zivny wants people to know, whether new to the metro or new to home buying, that the resources remain to test and clean up properties at no charge to the owner. There has been a dramatic reduction in lead levels in the community since the cleanup began, and he wants to see the work continue to create safe environments for families moving forward.

“We’ve taken the lead out of our gasoline, we’ve taken care of the smelting plant in this area,” he said. “This program is addressing the air emissions...and we do have other resources that address lead-based paint hazards at the city as well.”

Lead in any form, can do lasting damage to anyone, but especially children.

“It is still around and lead is still dangerous and it’s still a problem with our community although it was outlawed in 1978,” Zivny said. “We’re gonna be dealing with it for a while yet.”