By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Soil tests for lead and cadmium are now being required by the city of Joplin in the hardest-hit tornado-stricken area of the city when building permits are issued.
Some routine soil tests taken this summer in the main path of the storm have shown the presence of lead and cadmium higher than acceptable levels.
The city was notified Sept. 23 by the Jasper County Health Department that it had tested 43 pieces of property in the zone, and averages on 19 of the properties showed contamination beyond the accepted 400 parts per million. That is high enough to require that action be taken to remove or cover the contaminated soil.
Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department, said the contamination was detected in voluntary soil tests that property owners were having the county perform as a safeguard. Lead and cadmium are shown to cause developmental disabilities in children who are regularly exposed, usually through playing outdoors.
Once the city was notified by the county of the test results, notices recommending that other property owners obtain the free tests before they rebuilt in the tornado zone were passed out with building permit materials, Pekarek said.
Based on the number of the tests that detected contamination, city administrators recommended that tests be required on properties where children likely would be, such as where houses or where day care operations are located. The City Council passed an ordinance requiring the tests at its meeting Oct. 17.
MINING LEGACY CITED
Pekarek said it is believed that the contamination came from Joplin’s mining past.
“It appears it was used in the early construction of homes,” he said. “Chat was pretty readily available around here, and they used it. It was used as fill for voids around footings and foundations, and to level out crawl spaces.
“The second thing that may have occurred to cause the contamination is there could have been some old chat areas in the middle of the city and they just covered it with soil, but that was exposed now because of the tornado damage.”
The 43 original testing sites are located in various sections of the storm path. They include the lots where the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project was conducted Oct. 19 through Wednesday to build seven houses on Connor Avenue between 24th and 26th streets.
Pekarek said that when those lots were being excavated for the foundations of the houses, the contamination must have been on the surface, because turning the soil reduced the tested levels. A new layer of soil also was applied to assure that there would be no direct exposure to lead dust.
David Hertzberg, Joplin’s public works director, said that the city has been issuing about 20 residential building permits a day, and that only one is being held until another test can be done to see if the levels have been reduced.
Hertzberg said that the amount of cleanup work that has to be done depends on how high a level the testing shows the contamination to be.
A fix could be as simple as placing a few inches of new soil on the top of a yard to digging out the soil as deep as 18 inches and replacing it, Hertzberg and Pekarek said.
Pekarek said the soil tests done by the county are free. Property owners can remove their own contaminated soil and take it to an authorized dump site for free disposal.
The city has filed a request for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. The city sent a letter to the EPA saying that up to 1,500 properties could be contaminated and that it could cost up to $5,000 per property for a cleanup, or a total of $7.5 million.
Hertzberg said that amount is for a worst-case scenario where large amounts of contamination were found on many sites.
David Bryan, of the EPA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City, said, “We received the letter, and we have been in discussions with city officials and county officials.” To decide how much funding is needed, “it’s a matter of finding out what they project is the amount of work to be done and working out an agreement” between the various government entities. “We have done this before with the city, so a lot of people know how it works.”
The city may have based its estimate of contaminated sites on the percentages reflected in the results found in the voluntary testing, “but we don’t like to put a number to it because it’s what we find scientifically,” Bryan said. Testing determines how many properties could be affected, he said.
The EPA has worked in Joplin before, replacing or repairing yards in north Joplin where a former lead smelter spread contamination.
Pekarek said soil tests have been required in that area of the city since 2006.
To request a soil test, residents may call the Jasper County Health Department at 417-358-3111.