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Joplin Health Officials Finding Lead Contamination in Tornado Zone Soil

Contamination likely related to the city's history as a lead mining community

Reporter Standup:  “Good morning. I’m Jennifer Moore.  This morning, we’re back in Joplin to take a fresh look at the lingering environmental impact of the tornado.  Right now, I’m walking down a street in a neighborhood that’s comprised mostly of foundations of former homes that were blown away in the storm. There are a handful of new homes that have gone up – two or three, I’d say—in the past few months…and as you can probably hear in the background, there’s a bulldozer, and several dump trucks, indicating that progress is being made.

However, before homeowners can rebuild, they have to take a sample of the soil to make sure there aren’t unsafe levels of lead.  In fact, Joplin city officials several months ago noted that as many as 1,500 residential properties might be contaminated, and the Jasper County Health Department found in a test that almost half of the properties contained unsafe levels of lead.”

[Sound:  truck, power-varnishing wood]

Just up the street, Eric Mettlock of Pierce City is power-spraying varnish on a door frame that will go in this new, two story house.  It belongs to his wife’s aunt. She and her husband lived down the road and were home when the tornado destroyed their house.

“They just went in the bathroom and hung on while it blowed the house plum apart. So, they bought this lot up here,” he said.

They sold their old lot to neighbors and began planning to build here…but there was a delay.

“Basically, they just had to go through the county, and have the county come in and test it for lead. And, here we are,” he said.

City officials say they believe the answer to why lead soil samples are coming back high lies in Joplin’s past.  It’s rich history as a former lead and zinc mining community is a source of pride…but Joplin Health Department director Dan Pekarak says the old lead deposits from those mining days are now causing a problem.

“Subsequent to the tornado, as people started to clean up their properties and kind of look at rebuilding, there were individuals who were requesting to have their yards tested to see if there were any issues. And lo and behold, we started seeing some results of elevated soil—lead or cadmium—levels,” Pekarak said.

The fact that Joplin has high levels of lead in certain areas has been known for decades. For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting a “superfund” cleanup in the area. The Jasper County Health Department has received ongoing funding since the 1990s to conduct a childhood blood poisoning prevention program here.

But since the tornado, higher levels of lead have been showing up in areas where they previously didn’t exist.

“We suspect that a lot of the contamination in these areas that weren’t known previously to have a problem are probably due to the use of what we call ‘chat,’ in construction processes,” he said.

Chat is a byproduct in the mining, and construction process. It’s basically fragments of limestone gravel that was left over as a result of the old lead mining industry.  The problem is, that chat is tinged with plenty of lead itself…and health officials believe the tornado picked up some of that chat with its 200 miles per hour winds and scattered it throughout the city.

The danger is, of course, lead poisoning.  According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, If a person accumulates too much lead, then they are at risk of miscarriage or having babies prematurely, suffering memory loss and having learning difficulties.  Lead poisoning usually occurs over time--for example, a child playing frequently in a yard that contains high levels of lead—but it can be difficult to detect until the poisoning is severe.

Pekarek says some of the homes where officials are seeing the elevated levels of lead were built in the 1920s and 30s—and that was a time when builders didn’t give a second thought to traces of lead being in their materials. 

“In some places, frankly, it was probably already there [before the tornado]. It was an area that was mined and they built homes on it, and covered it up with dirt—put a few inches of dirt on top of it,” he said.

“Well, through the destruction of the home, this material has been exposed. And we suspect that’s what we’re dealing with now,” he said.

The EPA very quickly recognized that while the exposure was probably caused by the tornado, it was originally a mining-related issue.  The federal agency agreed to provide half a million dollars to cover the costs of soil sampling and remediation at properties that need  it.

A contractor, as the county finds homes that are above the standards set by the Jasper County Health Department—if they’re in the damage zone—they help replace the yard.

“Depending on the levels of the contamination, and replace it with six inches of clean soil. Or it could just be a cap—say it’s an area that’s low and they just ‘cap’ it. They basically put a barrier between where children would be likely to play and where the material is present,” he said.

Joplin has long had an ordinance requiring homeowners in former lead-mine areas to test their soil before building.  Since the tornado, Joplin City Council has amended that ordinance, widening it to include any homeowner who lived in the path of the tornado’s destruction.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore reporting from Joplin.