COLUMBIA, SC — Rick Jardine trudged across the excavated yards of Easy Street last week, surveying the work federal contractors had undertaken to remove industrial poisons.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had nearly finished digging up soil contaminated with lead and arsenic, and was restoring grass, fencing and walkways for a Columbia neighborhood that just six months ago was stunned by revelations of long-standing contamination.
Jardine, the EPA’s on-scene cleanup coordinator, said that most of the dangerous pollutants are gone and that people’s property in the Edisto Court neighborhood no longer contains the hazardous materials that once lurked in the soil.
“There will be no health risks to the folks there” now that the soil has been dug up and removed, Jardine said after examining the EPA’s work along the quiet lane not far from Rosewood Drive, near the Hamilton-Owens downtown airport.
Mop-up work will be going on for several more weeks, but Jardine said he expects it to be substantially complete by Christmas. The EPA will then close its temporary Columbia office and move to the next site in the Southeast that needs cleanup.
Easy Street residents, who have watched the Superfund work with interest, said they hope Jardine’s crews have gotten the contamination. Some remain skeptical that all of the pollution can be located and dug up.
Still, they say it’s been an eventful year and many want their neighborhood to return to the peaceful community many grew up in.
“I don’t know if they can get rid of all of this” contamination, 51-year-old Howard Eargle said, standing near his freshly restored front yard last week. “Time will tell. But I think it was a good thing they gave it a try.”
Lois McClinton, whose yard did not have contaminated soil, said the federal effort helped protect neighbors who could not protect themselves.
“These people around here could not have paid for it,” McClinton, 77, said of the taxpayer-backed cleanup.
Jardine said his agency did not dig out arsenic or lead buried lower than about 2 feet below the surface, but he said that should pose no future health threat because no one will be exposed to the deeper soil. It is only the soil near the surface that is the threat, he said.
The special cleanup, estimated to cost about $500,000 in federal taxpayer money, is not unprecedented in South Carolina. But it’s also not a routine effort. In this case, the relative public threat persuaded the EPA to do the work because it had the resources. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control asked for the EPA’s help.
Federal contractors began work Nov. 1 after the EPA and state regulators verified during the summer that unsafe levels of arsenic and lead were buried near the surface of yards along Easy and Howe streets.
The revelation stunned residents of the working-class neighborhood, where generations of families had grown up unaware of the industrial pollution in their midst.
A company’s plan to expand a nearby asphalt plant, revealed in July by The State newspaper, later led to the discovery that an old industrial site had quietly polluted land along Easy and Howe streets before homes were built there in the late 1940s.
A battery of tests in the neighborhood ensued, revealing that some yards contained toxins nine times above the federal safety level for lead in the soil. Drinking water is safe because the community gets city water, but exposure to polluted soil is a concern.
Lead is particularly dangerous to children who play in the dirt, then put their hands in their mouths. Children exposed to elevated lead levels can have difficulty speaking or learning in school. Arsenic is a poison that can cause upset stomachs if ingested.
Worried that people had grown up in the neighborhood exposed to the contamination, DHEC conducted medical tests in August for about 75 current and former residents.
Agency officials later determined that the people’s lead and arsenic levels were not unsafe, but the EPA agreed to cleanup the property to make sure no one continues to be exposed to the toxins.
Jardine, who set up a temporary EPA office near the work site, said crews will have removed more than 100 dump truck loads of metals-polluted dirt and hauled in an equal amount of clean soil to spread on people’s yards. Sod is then placed atop the fresh soil.
Logistically, that has meant removing about 30 mature trees from the neighborhood to make sure the EPA could get all the contaminated soil, he said. Neighbors were not relocated during the cleanup, but federal crews kept the soil moist to prevent dust from stirring lead and arsenic into the air. Air monitors checked for the presence of unsafe lead or arsenic levels.
Some of the most dangerous spots were in back yards on the south side of Easy Street, where many yards did not contain grass. The bare earth provided a direct threat to residents, particularly children who played in the soil.
“There was a direct exposure here,” Jardine said.
The final lot expected to be cleaned up is on Howe Street, where much of the polluted dirt has been stored temporarily. The contaminated soil is being shipped to a landfill for permanent disposal. Clean dirt is being shipped from Lexington County for disposal in yards.
Although Jardine said the neighborhood cleanup is winding down, lingering questions remain. Chief among them is who will pay to clean up a large lot that is adjacent to the backyards of Easy Street residents.
The lot, on Commerce Drive, also contains elevated levels of lead and arsenic. The EPA would like to clean that up so that material doesn’t eventually wash back into the neighborhood. The EPA, the state and a nearby landowner are discussing cleanup.
At the same time, questions remain about whether the EPA can recover any of its cleanup costs from previous owners of the old Royster-Guano fertilizer site, on the other side of Commerce Drive.
The Royster site is the primary suspect in causing the neighborhood pollution, even though the area is lined with small industries that have existed in the area for decades. The Royster Guano site operated from the early 1900s until about 1940, after which Easy Street was developed. Arsenic and lead trickled off the Royster Guano site and into an old lake that later was drained so the Easy Street area could be developed.