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Investigator: Government fails to warn Clevelanders of poisoned soil

10:07 AM, Apr 21, 2012   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- Joe Konopinski no longer allows his grandchildren to play in the backyard of his North Broadway home in Cleveland after learning of elevated levels of lead in his soil.

In 2002 and 2003, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found hazardously high levels of lead contamination in the bare soil in the neighborhood where Konopinski lives.

The state tested 12 samples and discovered that nine contained lead levels between two and five times the safe standard of 400 parts per million.

But it wasn't until recently that Konopinski learned of the results, after talking to reporters from Channel 3 News and USA Today.

The Ohio EPA never told him or anyone else in the neighborhood about of the potential danger.

A smelter factory that melts lead once operated nearby. Tyroler Metals shut down about 50 years ago and now functions as a scrap yard with a different owner.

But it wasn't alone. The state says other smelters also once operated in the same area.

The Ohio EPA failed to identify the source of the lead in the soil.

"It's not the best situation, but we try to make the best of it, " said Konopinski.

The Ohio EPA said it did all it could and sent a letter to the Cleveland Health Department regarding its test results. 

Matt Carroll, the Health Director back then, said lead contamination resulting from industrial or chemcial sites did not fall within the city's jurisdiction. Carroll said his focus was on lead in the home.

"I think the reality is, there are industrial plants, past and present, that remain contaminated at some level," said Carroll.

While the old lead factories may be gone, the lead dust they once spewed into the air can settle in the soil indefinitely. 

Dave Imka, who lives near the Tyroler site, had no idea of the elevated lead levels until Channel 3 News told him.

"Who knows how many people died because of that crap in this neighborhood?"  Imka said.

Clevelanders are demanding action. But it's unlikely the city will be able to offer any help. Its lead program has been cut 67 percent.

Even when the city had $2 million in federal money to spend on lead clean-up, it lost the money because it failed to spend it in time.

The director of the city's lead program, Jonathon Brandt,  was placed on leave before he was eventually laid off.

"They're so concerned about the lead paint and all this other crap, but they let you grow up in houses that are right in the middle of this factory mess," Imka said. 

Toxic lead in soil is no secret to urban gardneres.

Cleveland Botanical Garden founded a work-study program called Green Corps. Geri Unger, Director of Education and Research, said they conduct a thorough analysis of the soil prior to any planting at their gardens throughout the city.

"We usually find some lead levels in the soil which might be above the residential limits for lead,"  Unger said.  Unger said gardeners  avoid the hazard by either planting well above the ground or by removing the contaminated dirt and hauling it to a commercial landfill.  

USA Today conducted a 14-month investigation into lead-smelting plants across the country and documented how government regulators failed to warn homeowners about the poisons that were left behind.

The newspaper and Channel 3 News are owned by Gannett. You can read the newspaper's complete Ghost Factories: Poison in the Ground series

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