Omaha residential along with 8 other Superfund sites statewide (countless other sites nationwide) celebrated the one year anniversary of the bankruptcy of the Superfund trust fund Thurs. Sept.30. With the administrative abilities of the “Superfund polluters pay tax” choked out by congress since 1995, companies directly responsible for polluting areas around the country (like ASARCO here in Omaha) have not been paying into the fund. 33 Superfund sites nationwide have been denied funds and are not going to be able to clean up their respective areas this year.
The Superfund or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was established by congress in 1980 to address the immediate problem of cleaning up toxic waste dump sites. It was drafted to define liability for said sites and make the entities responsible for the waste accountable by having them pay into a superfund, built from fines and taxes, that would then be used to clean up the areas.
The Omaha Lead Superfund site is one of the largest contamination sites in the country. It stretches from 40th st. on east to the Missouri river, and from L st. on north to Ames ave..
Emissions from a steel smelting plant operated by ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company a subsidiary of Americas Mining Corporation, Grupo Mexico) have been named as the root cause of much of the lead contamination by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The plant was located on 5th & Douglas, and operated from 1900 to 1997 when the plant was dismantled and turned over to the city of Omaha. In 1972, University of Nebraska Medical Center scientists concluded that ASARCO was releasing too much lead into Omaha’s air.
ASARCO was concieved in El Paso, Texas, fathered by Robert Safford Towne in 1881, a result of a visit he made to mines in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Two years later he organized the Mexican Ore Company and then buddied up with the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company (KSARCO) in 1887. By 1899, ASARCO grew extensively after merging KSARCO with several other corporations, giving birth to the big fat smog baby and eventually insuring the degradation of Omaha’s environment.
Clean up for the Omaha lead site has been estimated to cost at most $214 million. There are currently a few different proposed clean up plans for the area and all of them are going to cost more than $74 million. One plan is to spread phosphate over contaminated lawns in the hopes that it will “eat up” the lead, this plan is estimated to cost around $74 million and has never been done before. The more expensive plan is soil replacement, the soil would be removed 12 inches deep and replaced with fresh soil, with 36,000 homes effected this plan could cost around $214 million.
ASARCO still hasn’t publicly stepped forward and claimed full responsibility for the lead contamination citing lead paint as the culprit. But if you consider the fact that where ever ASARCO has bed down there has been lead contamination (including their hometown El Paso), and that ASARCO under a lot of pressure has moved most of it’s operations to Mexico in the last few years, it seriously questions the validity of their denial.
There has been a 300% increase in state taxes correlating to the clean up since 1995, in 1994 taxpayers were spending $1 million compared to the $5 million they are spending now. 2$ million has been given to the Omaha lead site from ASARCO this year, so when you do the math the public is basically fitting the bill for ASARCO’s externalities. The $2 million came from lawsuit money.
Most of the actual clean up has not happened yet and is not going to happen unless there is sufficient funds, community awareness/action, and political/corporate accountability. Congressman Lee Terry has had a plethora of opportunities to help out the Omaha community and has done nothing. Not to mention that the Bush Administration has refused to support the “polluter’s pay tax” on all levels and has made sweeping budget cuts in other EPA programs.
All hope is not completely lost, one person does care and that person is Camellia Watkins. She is a Sierra club staff member here in Omaha and a former resident of the Superfund site at 23rd & Lothrop deep in the heart of contamination. Yesterday she held a rally to raise awareness to the bankruptcy of the Superfund. The rally was right next to her childhood home. Although the rally was poorly attended, I got to do an interview with her and she turned out to be a veritable wealth of information on the Superfund site. (Included with this article I have an audio interview with Camellia Watkins.)
We talked about why there isn’t much community involvement within the Superfund site. Ultimately, most of the residents are lower income/ working families who rent and don’t have time to worry about anything outside of feeding their families and paying rent. Camellia Watkins talked candidly about how most of these residents would be more apt to get involved if they knew how much this lead contamination does effect them and the mental/physical health of their children. Exposure to lead has been directly linked to Brain damage, kidney damage, and gastrointestinal distress (short term). Chronic (long-term) exposure to lead in humans results in effects on the blood, central nervous system (CNS), blood pressure, kidneys, and Vitamin D metabolism. Children are particularly sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of lead. There is evidence that blood lead levels of 10 to 30 µg/dL, or lower, may affect the hearing threshold and growth in children. So the potential reason why some of these mother’s are spending so much on hospital bills and their children are suffering from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper-active Disorder) could be lead exposure.
Class plays a big part in why there hasn’t been much done for the residents of the contaminated area. If this were a problem in the West Omaha community it would quickly be rectified, because most of the residents there own their homes and have the kind of political clout it takes to enforce corporate accountability. Sadly, most neighborhood associations in the Superfund area have enough trouble trying to get people to come to weekly meetings, let alone address the Superfund issue, according to Camellia.
I believe education is the key that can unlock this Superfund door. Camellia discussed working with OPS (Omaha Public Schools), she explained that she wants to go to high schools and have an art/film contest with 5 minute short films about what they think the environment will look like in 5 years if we continue to disregard environmental laws. Hopefully, working with the students will not only further their education but will also further the awareness with in their families and social circles. The information is out there it is just a matter of getting it to the people that can use it the most.
Unfortunately we are at the mercy of the Bush Administration and the state of Nebraska for the time being, but with the right amount of education, and understanding maybe there will be more community involvement to challenge these politicians, corporations, and bureaucrats. You have to crawl before you can walk.