The federal government recently tore up Debbie and Tony Morrison’s front yard in the small southeast Kansas town of Caney.
And the two are happy about it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came in, scraped away contaminated dirt, replaced it with clean soil and spread sod on top.
“It actually looks very good,” Morrison said. “After they put the new grass in, they came down and they faithfully watered and cared for it continually until they felt like it had taken hold.”
The Morrisons and hundreds of other Caney residents were living on contaminated lots — the legacy of two lead and zinc smelters that closed their doors there nearly a hundred years ago.
The EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are putting the final touches on a cleanup paid in part through legal settlements with mining companies that left the mess behind.
The effort involved hauling load after load of contaminated soil, pavement and other material away from more than 300 lawns and filling in with clean materials.
EPA site coordinator Mike Davis helped guide the cleanup. Caney’s two smelters didn’t just spread contamination through the air, he says. They also produced waste that looked a lot like gravel.
In Caney — population 2,200 as of the last U.S. Census — and elsewhere, that “gravel” once seemed pretty useful. People could landscape their yards, fill in low areas, lay down driveways. Cities could use it as a foundation layer when paving new streets.
“This material was often made available free to the public or whoever wanted it,” Davis said, “because it was available in abundance.”
Morrison, Caney’s city clerk and a 40-year-resident, didn’t know her yard was contaminated until officials tested the soil of nearly a thousand lots in town a few years ago. About a third proved to have elevated lead levels.
City administrator Fred Gress said the cleanup lifts a dark cloud off those homes that could have made them harder to sell. He’s disappointed, though, that some property owners turned the EPA and KDHE away.
“Part of it goes back to that old, ‘We don’t want a bureaucrat on our land,’” Gress said. “‘We don’t want them to know what we’re doing — there’s no need for it.’ When, in fact, a lot of the testing around town showed pretty high levels of lead.”
Around 80 properties couldn’t be tested for contamination because the owners either couldn’t be reached or refused the offer. A handful allowed testing but declined the cleanup.
Lead exposure can cause serious health problems. Children are especially vulnerable.
The recent work marked the second push to rid Caney of smelting contamination, the EPA and KDHE say. The smelter sites were cleaned up in the early 2000s. Officials returned in 2013 to test residential yards in response to a citizen’s complaint. The cleanup began in 2016.
For a century, southeast Kansas was home to a bustling mining industry that brought in jobs and people before largely drying up by the 1970s.
One reminder is “Big Brutus” — a 16-story electric shovel that has stood unused in Cherokee County since the 1970s but could once scoop 150 tons of earth at a time. Today it makes for an eye-catching monument to local history.
But that same county’s 115 square-mile Superfund site is another reminder — and an unfinished project on the to-do list for an agency that’s seen its funding for Superfund cleanups shrink.
The EPA has been working on the Cherokee cleanup since the 1980s. It’s done with about 2,700 acres of contaminated waste and earth and the yards of more than 700 homes. Five hundred homes got hooked up to clean drinking water to avoid contaminated groundwater.
In 1996, more than 10 percent of children there who underwent blood tests had elevated lead levels, says Liz Hagenmaier, a project manager at the EPA. Fresh testing in 2005 put the figure at 6 percent.
Stubborn problems remain. The EPA says 700 acres of land still need to be addressed at the Superfund site — including contaminated surface water.
Some of that is in difficult-to-reach areas, or on private property the agency can’t easily access.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.
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