Omaha must be unleadead

Corey Griffin, Business Manager

In 1997, American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) closed its doors permanently in downtown Omaha after receiving a $3.6 million fine for dumping lead and other contaminants into the Missouri River. This is after a discovery in 1972 that lead was also poisoning the air and ground surrounding the factory.

The building was torn down, and the lead in the soil was secured from leaking further into the river and soil, but 20 square miles of Omaha is still contaminated with lead, still poisoning families and businesses. Today, the site of the ASARCO building is the site of the CenturyLink Convention Center and the TD Ameritrade Park, destination points for tourism in Omaha.

ASARCO was in a violation of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards on pollution, and had the opportunity to stay open once they paid the fine

ASARCO is not the only contributor to lead in the city of Omaha – lead paints used in buildings predating 1977  contribute to elevated lead levels within houses and commercial buildings, and leaded gasoline only began to be phased out in the mid-1970s.  However, ASARCO by far was the single most prolific contributor of lead into the city of Omaha.

Innumerable amounts of lead could be found east of 72nd Street by the mid-1990s, which is why the EPA declared much of Omaha a superfund site, an area which is so toxic the government must mitigate the situation. Omaha’s superfund site is the largest residential superfund site in the nation.

Elevated levels of lead in children can cause permanent learning disabilities, and many people who live in the area are minorities who cannot afford to move away or decontaminate their properties.             The causes of lead poisoning are well-known,  making the sickness entirely preventable, but in 2000, nearly 10% of all residents within the superfund site had elevated lead levels, though that has declined since lead production has stopped to less than 1% today.

Only about 260 acres of land have been cleaned of the nearly 8000 on the Omaha site at this rate very little gets done. Slowness is contributed to the fact that owners must clean the site if contaminated, which can take time and the process makes lawns and properties look unattractive. Testing and excavation are free for all property owners if they so choose, but it is not required, though lead significantly lowers property values and is deadly.

While Omaha is a prime example of a superfund site, it is only part of the 1,330 sites in which the EPA must clean up. One in six Americans live on or near a superfund site, many of which have not seen cleanup progress since they were created. ASARCO is responsible for 20 superfund sites found throughout the western United States including one in Picher, Oklahoma.

In the 1940s, the small town of Picher, Oklahoma was booming because of its lead mining industry, which provided ammunition for soldiers in World War 2. After the war, many of the mines shut down because the demand for lead ammunition had declined. ASARCO, the owner of many of those mines left mountains of lead, zinc, and cadmium which blew into the city.

These mountains were recycled and used in construction of houses, driveways, and in pure form in children’s sandboxes, which exposed children to nearly 5000 times safe lead exposure. A guidance counselor at Picher-Cardin High School noticed that many of the students had learning disabilities, and blood tested some of the students.  Nearly 50% of the children who attended the schools had extremely high blood lead levels.

Contaminants in the piles leached into the Tar Creek and into the groundwater, where the city’s municipal water supply came from. Children would play in the creek and get chemical burns, which many would dismiss as sunburns. The people began a mandatory evacuation of the city in the 1990s, and by 2010 nobody lived in Picher, Oklahoma.

A triannual $2.2 million grant by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to clean older houses in lower income areas brings hope to neighborhoods that has been long lost. The goal is to remove lead paint and fix older lead pipes into the home to make them safer for the families which live in them. It was provided in September of 2015 and could make 135 more families safe from lead.

Overall, Omaha’s, Picher’s and many other superfund sites are well known, but very little work has been done to improve the situation. Nearly 30% of the EPA’s funding is being reduced for the 2018 fiscal year, as well as a significant portion of the HUD.

“It’s more about decision-making, leadership and management than money,” Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA said.

“We were worried about future funding, but we have a pretty good working relationship with the EPA,” Steven Zivny, City of Omaha’s Program Director for Lead said.

Omaha’s EPA cleanup funding will continue until May of 2022 without interruption, and the triannual HUD grant is the only HUD funding that has increased this year.

“I’m glad we are able to have the rescores and funding for this program,” Zivny said.

For more information and for lead levels near your home, visit for an interactive map. For questions or comments, e-mail me at [email protected].