INDIANAPOLIS -- From 1946 to 1965, the American Lead smelter in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood reclaimed lead from car batteries and other industrial waste. In 1970, the old smelter caught fire – and for years, neighborhood residents have been dealing with lead-contaminated soil.
In 2005, under an order from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Lead Company, which owned the smelter, excavated soil from around 220 homes where lead levels exceeded the EPA’s safe limits of 400 parts per million.
But neighbors and environmental officials knew the problem existed beyond the boundaries of the initial cleanup. Now the EPA is preparing for another round of remediation after follow-up testing by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found high levels of antimony, a chemical used in car batteries.
“We saw elevated levels of antimony in this community,” said Shelly Lam, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator in Indianapolis. “Showing that there’s a strong correlation between that chemical we know was present at the facility within this community, we were able to establish attribution.”
That finding is important because the EPA needed to pinpoint an industrial source of the lead contamination in order to tap Superfund money for the cleanup. Lam says the money should be enough to remove tainted soil and replace it with clean fill around as many as 100 homes. She told residents at a public meeting Thursday night that she would push for more funding if necessary.
“To spend Superfund money, we have to be able to attribute it to the smelter. We will try to attribute as much as we can to the smelter so that we can remove as much of the lead from the community as we can,” Lam said.
The EPA’s “area of concern” is roughly from 25th Street to the north and Ralston Avenue northeast along the railroad to Interstate 70 on the south and the Monon Trail to the west.
Lam told residents that EPA drew the boundaries based on air modeling of how lead particulates spread from the smelter.
The cleanup involves excavating soil two feet down around homes where the lead level exceeds 400 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil and replacing it with clean fill dirt. She also assured residents that the remediation would also include laying new sod – not merely reseeding their yards.
Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, and it can lead to serious health problems. Though the cleanup hasn’t started yet, Lam says that homes with young children or pregnant or nursing women will go to the top of the priority list.
“We are very concerned that there is still high levels of lead in our soils, more than 10 years after the initial cleanup,” said Elizabeth Gore, the chairwoman of the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative. “How many children grew up playing in the soil, thinking it was safe, and it wasn’t?”
She says she’s glad that the EPA is back in her neighborhood, but she says, “we wish it had been done sooner.”
Gore and other environmental justice advocates have worked for years to educate residents about the lead contamination and to press for more cleanup.
“What we need most is to know that once you take up the soil, are you going to put back good soil? We want to make sure that the property value isn’t affected, we want to make sure that EPA when this is taken care of, the public knows we did the job,” Gore said.