A decade-long failure to investigate and clean up old lead factories was revealed by USA Today?s blockbuster expose of ?ghost factories? last week. The paper?s fourteen-month investigation uncovered an inexcusable pattern of bureaucratic bungling by state and federal regulators. Ten years after environmental scientist Bill Eckel identified 463 old lead plants that were unknown to the government agencies, little had been done to test these locations and less to clean them up.
Eckel had tested eight of the sites himself, in Baltimore and Philadelphia. In all but one of the eight, he found lead pollution that made it unsafe for children to play. He published these findings in the American Journal of Public Health in 2001, and the EPA quickly contacted him to get the full list. But then things went downhill. Investigations were haphazard at first, and after a while they ground to a near-halt. Only a few sites were cleaned up. In some cases, homeowners were not notified after their yards were found to be contaminated.
I worked with Bill Eckel when he discovered his first old lead plant in 1994?and our experience then shows what could and should have been done with all of the ghost factories. When that first site was reported to the EPA, the government did exactly what you would want it to do. The soil was tested two weeks later. When bad news came from the lab, action followed within hours. The contrast between then and now is a stark lesson in the reality of pollution control.
Our small consulting firm had been hired by the steelworkers union to investigate the environmental record of a major lead company as part of a corporate campaign. Looking through old records at the Federal Trade Commission, I found mention of a factory in Anderson, Indiana that crushed old batteries before they were sent to a smelter. Bill contacted the Indiana Historical Society, which was able to find the street address of the plant. The building still stood, with no fence around it.
We reported the site to the EPA on August 15. The EPA checked with the Indiana Deptartment of Environmental Management and learned that a sampling crew was working in a nearby city. On September 1, as soon as they finished what they were doing, the state team swung over to Anderson and collected eight soil samples.
The results that came from the lab a month later were truly alarming. One sample of dirt contained over 8 percent lead?more than 200 times the allowable level. Without even waiting for the usual checks on lab procedures, the state agency called the city right away. Yellow warning tape was strung around the property that same afternoon, and the police made extra patrols to keep youngsters out. A chain-link fence was put up two weeks later.
Even before the fence went up, state regulators heard from a truck driver who read about the contamination in the Anderson Herald Bulletin. He told them of another place where 500 tons of broken battery casings had been dumped off the side of a ravine.
The main industry in Anderson is auto parts, so the steelworkers put us in touch with the local auto workers. The chair of their health and safety committee knew the place well?his paper route, when he was a boy, ran past it. He contacted local officials and urged them to stay on top of the problem.
Bill Eckel kept closely in touch with the government agencies as this work progressed, helping them whenever he could by sharing the data we had gathered. Within three years?a short time as these things go?permanent clean-ups were complete at both locations.
Bill took pride in what he accomplished in Anderson. His work almost surely saved children from lead poisoning. By then he had gone back to school part-time, and he decided to make a search for old lead plants the topic of his Ph.D. Bill?s research yielded USA Today?s long list of ghost factories.
Why wasn?t Bill’s initial success repeated later? The federal, state, and city officials who acted so promptly in Anderson deserve plenty of credit, but what made the difference there was public involvement. The government agencies needed little prodding to act; they knew the matter had the attention of the Indiana labor movement and the local media.
Many public employees did their best to follow up on the 463 lead sites, but they were unable to overcome the drag of bureaucratic inertia and underfunding. Now USA Today?s investigation has triggered action, with work already underway in fourteen states. The paper is deservedly proud of its reporting. Children will grow up free of lead contamination as a result.
But not every environmental problem can be the subject of a national exposé. What the story of that first site in Anderson shows is the importance of an organized and aroused citizenry.
Photo: battery waste found at an old recycling plant, the Tonolli superfund site in Pennsylvania (EPA)