Drenching rains almost always meant one thing on Easy Street: The road became a watery playground for neighborhood children.
For decades, the dirt street flooded so badly it became a creek of knee-deep water. Soon after the rain subsided, kids would pour out of homes in the Edisto Court community to splash in the muddy stream or lie in the cool waters.
Anthony Belton, 50, was one of them. But now he wonders if the water he played in as a child was polluted with toxic lead and arsenic that settled in the dirt along Easy Street before he was born.
Last month generations after people began living on Easy Street toxins powerful enough to cause learning disabilities in children and cancer in adults were discovered in yards along the small, shaded lane off Rosewood Drive. State officials think the pollution may have existed for decades.
The news stunned community residents, including Belton, who want answers about the new-found contamination.
Should they move out? Should they see a doctor? Should they sue somebody?
How safe are we? asked Belton, a neighborhood handyman whose mother raised eight children on Easy Street. Even now, I do a lot of yard work. If it is in the ground, its got to be in the grass, too. What is going to happen to us? We need to know something.
Beltons older sister, Joyce, is upset about the contamination that state regulators say came from an industrial corridor a block away.
I just cant understand how it has come to this, she said. My grandchildren play in the neighborhood. Somebody needs to come in and clean this up. DHEC needs to find out how much more pollution is in the neighborhood. This is a big concern.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say they are working to better understand the problem and its threat to the community, which DHEC director Catherine Templeton has called a big deal.
EPA officials arrived on the scene Friday, when they began sampling the air and soil. Air samples will determine whether lead and arsenic are being stirred into the air by heavy trucking in the industrial corridor next door to Easy Street.
Soil samples, taken using X-ray equipment and a large drill, will give a more comprehensive result on how significant the ground pollution is and what the threat is to individual residents.
More than one-third of the yards tested last month by DHEC contained potentially hazardous lead or arsenic levels or both, according to data obtained Friday by The State newspaper. Most of the higher lead and arsenic levels were found on the south side of Easy Street, where some readings were many times higher than recommended safe-exposure limits.
In the meantime, DHEC and the EPA are advising residents of the Edisto Court community to be cautious about digging in the soil, to keep their windows closed and to wash their hands frequently. Agency officials say they dont think anyone is in immediate danger, but want to be extra careful.
We need for people to take some precautions when they are outside, DHEC cleanup official Ken Taylor said.
Health officials also are offering free health screenings Monday and Tuesday in the neighborhood. That will include blood testing.
Lead and arsenic occur naturally but often become dangerous after they are used in industrial processes and released in large quantities back into the environment. Lead, a heavy metal, often washes off old, corroded pipes, while arsenic was once used as poison to kill pests.
In this case, DHEC says the old Royster Guano Co., a long-closed fertilizer plant, likely caused the pollution when lead and arsenic ran off the site and into an old lake sometime between 1900 and 1940. The lake later was drained and houses built in the pond bed during the late 1940s, the agency says.
Peaceful life threatened
Easy Street is nestled on the southern edge of Edisto Court, a small community of modest houses, tall hardwood trees and playgrounds.
It lies between Rosewood Drive and Shop Road just a few blocks from a crumbling industrial area that contains an asphalt plant, a moving company, a car repair shop and several other small businesses.
For years, the community and the industries co-existed in separate worlds. But in the 1990s, The State newspaper reported that a nuclear laundry had been operating in the midst of Edisto Court. Folks knew it was a laundry but say they were never told the site was washing radioactive clothing from the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex near Aiken.
A community outcry eventually prompted the laundrys owners to move closer to SRS. Today, a community center sits on the site of the former laundry.
Since that time, efforts have been under way to spruce up the community even more. Several urban farms have been developed in the area, and a restaurant is on the drawing board. Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a recent letter that the Rosewood community, which includes Edisto Court and Easy Street, is on the verge of greatness.
So its hard for folks like Bessie Watson to believe the community is facing another issue witih industrial pollution. Watson, president of the Edisto Court Community Council and last years president of the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods, led a meeting for residents last week to discuss the issue with DHEC officials.
This all kind of blindsided us, said Watson, who grew up on Easy Street. We just didnt know. We werent aware of this at all.
Officials searched in a broader area, but it was Easy Street where the trouble has turned up so far.
Lois McClinton, 76, remembers arriving on Easy Street in the 1950s, when her husband retired from the Army and wanted to move back to his old neighborhood in Columbia. It was a peaceful place, filled with children, that looked to be a good spot to settle. And it has been a comfortable home all these years for McClinton.
Now, the unsettling cloud from industrial pollution has her reflecting on what it means. She doesnt know if lead or arsenic has contributed to health problems some folks in the Edisto Court community have had, said McClinton, who suffered a stroke several years ago.
Had I known about this, I wouldnt have moved here, the Louisiana native said. I just came here with my husband. I met people and they were nice.
A threat forever
Lead and arsenic are nothing to ignore, state and federal regulators say.
One of leads most notable health effects is brain damage to children and developing fetuses. Even at low-levels, the toxic metal can over time cause permanent brain damage that makes it more difficult for the young to speak and to learn in school. It also can cause high blood pressure, numbness and kidney damage in adults.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently recommended sharply reducing the level of lead children should have in their blood because of its toxicity to youngsters.
Arsenic was used as a poison as far back as Roman times. Short-term exposure in high enough doses can cause nausea, vomiting, skin disorders and death. Long-term exposure to certain forms of arsenic can increase the risk of certain cancers, including those of the bladder, lungs, kidneys, liver and prostate.
The bad news is that lead and arsenic dont disintegrate in the environment and can be poisonous decades after industrial plants release the material, current and former DHEC health experts say. Lead is a particular concern, retired state toxicologist John Brown said.
Forever, Brown said when asked how long lead can threaten health and the environment. It just does not break down.
The key for the people of Edisto Court, however, is how long people were exposed to both lead and arsenic and at what levels, DHEC officials say. The good news is that DHEC has no recent indication that children in the neighborhood have suffered from lead poisoning or that anyone has health problems related to lead or arsenic, the agency says.
While DHEC cant answer all the questions posed by folks in Edisto Court, the agency has offered free health screenings for people worried about lead showing up in their bodies. DHEC is setting up a screening unit at a Wiley Street community center Monday and Tuesday. The screenings, available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., would show current arsenic or lead levels, although not whether anyone was exposed to high levels in the past.
For people like Kenneth Hurey, anything state and federal officials can do to answer questions would be welcomed.
Hurey, 54, is a former federal contractor who suffers from kidney disease and is on dialysis. Originally from Atlanta, he moved to Howe Street four years ago after working in South Carolina for years. He chose the Edisto Court neighborhood because it was peaceful. He lives just around the corner from Easy Street.
I dont want to move out of the neighborhood, Hurey said. But this very much worries me. I have enormous heath issues. I dont need anything unhealthy around me at all.
Im also worried about the safety of the kids, he said. What are they going to get into?
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.