Joplin tornado damage causes lead contamination worries

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | 6:35 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — The May tornado that killed 162 people and destroyed more than 7,000 homes in Joplin left the city with a lead contamination problem that could cost up to $7.5 million to clean up.

The EF5 twister was among the most deadly single tornadoes in U.S. history, and it disturbed ground that had long encapsulated toxic levels of lead left over from abandoned lead mining in the area. City officials said the lead contamination has been re-exposed on about 1,500 properties in damaged areas, The Kansas City Star reported Thursday.

The city has stopped issuing building permits for some highly contaminated properties in heavily damaged areas until the contamination can be cleaned up. The city also told the Environmental Protection Agency in a letter earlier this month that the high lead levels in the disrupted areas could be a significant liability issue and safety hazard for Joplin. The city has asked the federal government for help with the lead contamination.

"As a direct result of the devastating EF5 tornado, the city of Joplin has developed concerns about the lead levels in the tornado-affected area due to the removal of the loose tornado debris and the disruption of the soil, which has exposed mined waste throughout the affected area," according to the EPA letter from Joplin Mayor Michael Woolston.

High lead levels in children can cause cognitive and developmental disorders.

EPA officials said Wednesday that they were working with the city to help identify and restore the properties, adding that the agreement "will include some type of funding mechanism."

Properties can be remediated by hauling off contaminated soil or adding layers of topsoil, depending on the level of contamination, according to Jasper County officials.

Lead and cadmium contamination has long been an issue in Joplin, and much of the city is honeycombed by long-abandoned lead and zinc mines. The EPA began a cleanup effort around Joplin in the early 1990s that is still going on. About 2,400 contaminated properties, mostly in northwest Joplin, were eventually cleaned up by hauling out contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil.

Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department, said Wednesday that the earlier remediation efforts finally brought down the number of children with higher-than-normal lead levels, and the city wants to ensure that those levels do not rise again in the wake of the tornado.

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