Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
In This Section
  September/October 2002 Features:
California Emissions Bill Paves Way for Cleaner Cars
Communities at Risk
Shell Victory
"Sparkplugs" Help Ignite Pro-Environment Candidates in Colorado Elections
The Bill That Industry Bought
From the Editor
Natural Resources
Who We Are
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
Back Issues

The Planet

Leaving Our Communities at Risk

Federal Enforcement Key to Curbing Pollution from Ohio Steel Mill | Cape Cod Tack Factory Pollution Threatens Drinking Water Supply | Smelter Poisoning Missouri Town | Loopholes Could Allow Refineries to Increase Pollution | Lead Endangers Omaha Children

How changes in toxic waste cleanup and clean air policies hurt 25 American communities

communities at riskBarb Brunton, a pediatric nurse and mother of four, grew vegetables in her backyard in Omaha so that she could make homemade baby food for her children. But the soil in her yard was contaminated with high levels of lead, the legacy of a nearby lead refinery, and the vegetables she fed to her children were actually poisoning them. The refinery closed in 1997 and the EPA is now considering placing the site on the Superfund priority list, but a lack of federal funding could delay cleanup.

Omaha is one of the 25 communities highlighted in the Sierra Club's new report, "Leaving Our Communities at Risk," which documents the real life consequences of Bush administration actions-and inactions. Of course, the Bush administration didn't create these problems, but by making it easier for old factories and power plants to increase pollution and letting toxic waste cleanup wither due to lack of funding, it further endangers these communities.

Federal clean air protections, toxic waste cleanups, and environmental enforcement initiatives have been critical in protecting Americans' health and safeguarding our environment. But despite three decades of progress in this country to clean up our air, water, and toxic dump sites, the Bush administration is proposing policy changes that would put the health and safety of our families and communities at risk.

In June 2002, the Bush administration proposed sweeping changes in the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program that would undermine 30 years of progress in cleaning up America's air. The law currently requires older industrial facilities to install modern pollution control equipment when they make changes that increase the amount of pollution they can produce. But under the administration's proposed new rules, some 17,000 power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, steel mills, and other major sources of pollution will be allowed to increase their emissions without installing modern pollution controls.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is also damaging the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program by refusing to support the landmark bill's "polluter-pays" provision.

Following are excerpts from five stories that appear in the report. To read the other stories or to download a copy of it, please see

Up to Top

Federal Enforcement Key to Curbing Pollution from Ohio Steel Mill

Cliff Shearer, a firefighter in Middletown, Ohio, wrote a letter to the Ohio EPA in November 2001, saying he had a rare form of cancer called renal cell carcinoma, a type of cancer found predominantly in steelworkers. But Shearer had never worked in a steel plant; he had only lived next to one. "All my life," he said in his letter, "I've taken good care of my health. I'd like to know what caused my cancer. Is it because of where I live, within a half mile of AK Steel? I would like some answers." Shearer never got his answers. In April 2002 he died at 58.

ray agee
Ray Agee, above, invested his life savings in a home near AK Steel in Middletown, Ohio, only to find his house and car coated daily with black soot from the plant's operations. AK Steel has committed more than 200 Clean Water Act violations and dozens of Clean Air Act violations since 1995, but the Bush administration's proposed cuts in EPA funding would slash the workforce that acts against chronic polluters like AK Steel.

Since 1976, pollution from AK Steel has been documented in Middletown, a working class community of 50,000 people between Dayton and Cincinnati. In a story in the Middletown Journal from that year, AK Steel (then known as Armco) conceded that "an unusually heavy amount of pollution has been wafting over from its recycling plant."

The pollution continued over the next 25 years, during which time the Ohio EPA failed to protect Middletown residents' health. In 1996, a benzene leak from the plant resulted in the demolition of half a block of houses. Finally, in June 2001, the U.S. EPA took legal action against AK Steel's 200-plus violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, numerous spills of up to 1 million gallons into local waterways, and violations for improper disposal of hazardous waste.

According to its Web site, AK Steel is the most profitable steel company in the country, with more than $4 billion in sales, mostly to car companies. "There is a little bit of Middletown in every town," they boast. Ray Agee, a Middletown resident who lives next to the plant, cringes when he hears that slogan. "There is also a little bit of AK Steel in every lung in Middletown," he quips.

Agee grew up in Middletown, worked briefly at AK Steel, and then left for 20 years to work as a truck driver. Five years ago he returned and bought a house in the neighborhood where he had grown up. Agee remembers learning to swim in the local creek and picking berries by its edge. But things have changed dramatically. Signs are now posted along the creek, warning "Unsafe Water, Do Not Swim, Bathe, Drink or Fish." The inside and outside of his house, car, and garage are coated daily with black soot from AK Steel's operations. Agee says his health seems okay, although his breathing has become more labored.

AK Steel responds to questions regarding its environmental record by threatening to leave town, taking locals' jobs with them.

Only after the federal EPA had filed suit did the Ohio EPA seek to intervene. (The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council also motioned to intervene in January 2002.) But the Bush administration's FY2003 budget for the EPA would cut hundreds of staff jobs, slashing the workforce that investigates and takes action against chronic environmental violators like AK Steel.

Ray Agee's life-savings are invested in his house, and he is angry with himself for not taking the pollution into account before buying. "I thought, 'This is where I grew up-this is where I want to settle down.' But things are so bad here, I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy." In the same breath, he says, "I wish Richard Wardrop [CEO and President of the Board of AK Steel] could just spend a week down here and see what we go through."

Up to Top

Cape Cod Tack Factory Pollution Threatens Drinking Water Supply

unsafe waterThe fence surrounding the Atlas Tack Superfund site in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, fell down years ago. Now children play near the hazardous soil and teenagers dare each other to enter the property.

For 70 years the people of Fairhaven thought Atlas Tack was a good neighbor. Residents of the small Cape Cod community could count on the factory to provide jobs producing tacks, shoe eyelets, nails, and other metal products. Formerly the town's largest employer and taxpayer, Atlas Tack's closing in 1985 was a painful blow to the local economy. It also left behind a dangerous threat to public health.

The pickling, plating, enameling, annealing, and cleaning processes that the Atlas Tack Corporation conducted during its century-long existence have left behind wastes and pollutants that threaten the health of more than 7,000 people who live within a mile of the facility and some 15,000 people who drink groundwater from wells within three miles of the site.

When the company abandoned the 24-acre complex, Fairhaven residents learned that heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and nickel, as well as pesticides, arsenic, cyanide, and PCBs had contaminated the site. They also found an unlined waste lagoon built in the 1940s that had leaked chemicals into a neighboring salt-water tidal marsh and into Fairhaven's groundwater supply.

Wastes seeping from the unlined Atlas Tack lagoon have deeply penetrated the marine ecosystem around Fairhaven. Contamination of the tidal marsh, two nearby wetlands, and the adjacent Buzzards Bay have resulted in dangerous conditions for several threatened species of native fish, and authorities have banned commercial fishing for finfish and clams in the area due to pollution of the water. Fairhaven's fishing industry, once a mainstay of the local economy, has moved elsewhere, and the town now depends largely on tourism. But the tourists might move on as well if a contaminated waste dump continues to pollute the community's land and water.

Unlike many businesses responsible for the pollution on Superfund sites, Atlas Tack has a parent corporation that still possesses a healthy bankroll. Regrettably, Great Northern Industries has refused to comply with EPA-mandated cleanup efforts. Massachusetts had to sue Atlas Tack in 1984 to begin repair of the lagoon, but the company subsequently failed to comply with the cleanup agreements. After agreeing in 1996 to pursue redevelopment of the site for commercial purposes, Great Northern has ignored the needs of the Atlas Tack site and the desperate frustration of Fairhaven residents. A 1997 letter sent to the EPA by the town of Fairhaven's governing board stated: "The residents...are frustrated at the length of time [cleanup] has taken. The building is in very poor condition and continues to present a danger to the children and adults living in this area."

The site was placed on the National Priority List of Superfund sites in 1990, and in 2000 the EPA released an $18 million cleanup plan calling for demolition of the former manufacturing buildings, excavating soil from the marsh and surrounding lands, and restoring the soil with clean vegetation. The EPA anticipated completing the first two phases of the program by the end of summer 2002, but work has not even begun due to a shortfall in Superfund monies. Having been abandoned once already when Great Northern Industries refused to take responsibility for the wastes Atlas Tack produced, Fairhaven residents now see the EPA forgetting them as well.

Up to Top

Smelter Poisoning Missouri Town

In Herculaneum, Missouri, a town of 2,800 people 30 miles south of St. Louis, more than a quarter of the children under age six have unsafe levels of lead in their blood. Parents hose down swingsets in their backyards to remove lead particles before their children play on them, and some backyards have such high levels of lead that it's unsafe for children to play there at all. Some residents have moved out of their homes altogether so lead can be cleaned from the interior of their houses and from their yards.

daughter died
Lori Pedersen's daughter died at 20 from a lung embolism. Her death may have been due to the ingestion of fumes from Doe Run's lead smelter in Herculaneum.

"It's emotionally exhausting," says Leslie Warden, a Herculaneum resident and former city council member who has fought, so far unsuccessfully, to get cleanup funds from the federal Superfund program. "Vacuuming isn't vacuuming, it's lead removal. I have small nieces and nephews, and the thought of having them in my house, exposed to lead dust on the floor, makes me cringe."

The source of the problem is the Doe Run Company's lead smelter, the largest and oldest of its kind in the country. The smelter's massive smokestack, a landmark since the late 1800s, looms above Herculaneum. The smelter takes in fine millings from the lead mines elsewhere in Missouri and converts them into lead, which is then used in shielding, batteries, and other applications.

At Doe Run, lead dust from the ore-hauling trucks, air emissions from the smelter, and runoff from veritable mountains of smelter waste are released to the environment. In 2000 alone, Doe Run admitted releasing more than 2.2 million pounds of lead, mostly to on-site piles of smelter waste and directly to the air.

In February 2002, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services released a Health Consultation that contained the results of their blood-lead census and other sampling conducted in 2001. Within a half-mile of the lead smelter, more than 50 percent of the children had unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

Prompted by these findings, the Missouri Department of Health posted signs all over Herculaneum advising citizens to avoid contact with surfaces exposed to lead dust, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued a "cease and desist" order against Doe Run. The company has agreed to buy out homes and yards in the area on a schedule of "worst first," and to make purchase offers on about 160 homes by December 2004.

The ability of the Doe Run Company to comply with its agreement with the state of Missouri depends not just on the company's cooperation but also its continued solvency, which is in doubt. In May 2001, Doe Run warned the state that it lacked the resources to make environmental improvements as quickly as the state had requested.

Concerned that the company may enter bankruptcy before cleaning up the health threat it has created, Missouri Governor Bob Holden, Senator Jean Carnahan and Representative Richard Gephardt (in whose congressional district Herculaneum is located) have asked the EPA to place the site on Superfund's priority cleanup list. So far, however, the EPA has not done so.

"Without Superfund funding," says Warden, "Doe Run can balk at EPA orders, knowing that the EPA won't have the resources to enforce them in court. Without Superfund, there would be no hope for small towns like ours. We would be at the mercy of large corporations."

Up to Top

Loopholes Could Allow Refineries to Increase Pollution

kids play in texas
Children play near refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. Proposed changes in teh Clean Air Act would allow three nearby refineries to pollute more without installing modern pollutions controls.

Hilton Kelley grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and he knows first-hand about the health risks faced by people living near refineries. Port Arthur's refineries routinely light up the night sky with burning flares, fireballs, and smoke plumes that waft through the community. The air regularly smells like rotten eggs from the hydrogen sulfide, burnt matches from the sulfur dioxide, and paint thinner from benzene.

Kelley cites the example of ten-year-old Cullen Como, an asthma sufferer who lives across the street from a Port Arthur refinery and frequently misses school and requires medical treatment. Another victim of the refinery pollution, Annie Edwards, describes her reaction to it: "I panic and I can't catch enough air, and if I go outside, it's worse. I have to strap on my breathing machine at night so I don't pass on while I sleep."

In addition to smog and soot, the refineries produce significant amounts of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and nickel compounds. People who live in the vicinity breathe a complex soup of poisonous chemicals that has been connected to numerous health ailments, including anemia, problems with reproduction and organ development, and increased incidences of cancer.

Hilton Kelley sums up the problems he sees daily: "I know from walking door-to-door that these problems are widespread. Too many people are dying from cancer. Too many people have thyroid problems. We have two dialysis clinics in this small town, and it's time for the citizens to say, 'Enough is enough''s time to do something about this situation."

Jefferson County, Texas, where Port Arthur is located, sits on the Louisiana border, and industries straddling the state line in the vicinity released more than 173 million pounds of toxic and carcinogenic wastes into the air in 2000. A 1996 Sierra Club study found that Jefferson County ranks eighth in the nation in the release of carcinogenic substances.

Once a thriving community of locally-owned businesses, Port Arthur - now overwhelmingly African-American - has been devastated by the flight of the middle class, leaving much of the city a wasteland of vacant lots. Poverty and lack of health care facilities have combined with the high pollution levels to create a disproportionate health burden on the community.

Between 1993 and 2001, Port Arthur refineries increased their combined capacity by nearly 19 percent-more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day. If the Bush administration's proposed changes to the Clean Air Act become law, polluters will be able to make such expansions without installing modern technology to reduce associated pollution, adding to the noxious mixture that Port Arthur refineries release.

Neil Carman, a staff member at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, has compiled data identifying the types and impacts of the pollution produced by Port Arthur refineries. He found a relationship between refinery/chemical plant emissions and the health problems alleged by Port Arthur residents and has documented a lax Texas regulatory response to these complaints.

Up to Top

Lead Endangers Omaha Children

Barb Brunton grew vegetables in her Omaha back yard so she could make fresh homemade baby food for her children. Little did she know that her soil was contaminated with unsafe levels of lead, and when her babies ate the vegetables, they ingested it. The soil, tested by the EPA in 1999, registered 1,000-3,000 ppm (parts per million) of lead. The EPA uses 400 ppm as a base level of concern.

Brunton believes that two of her children have suffered developmentally and required special education as a direct result of lead poisoning. Her oldest son could not speak a full sentence until he was five years old, and he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, for which he has been on medication. His hands shake so badly the school district has given him a computer for taking notes, and he wears a special glove to weigh down his writing hand.

In 1999, at the age of one, Brunton's middle son tested lead positive with a blood lead level of 13. (Ten is considered to be the threshold of concern, although there is no "safe" level of lead.) "It immediately threw me into a tailspin," Brunton said, "because I realized I was seeing the same problems that we had already gone through with his older brother. I realized all the problems they were having were related to lead." In an effort to eliminate her children's exposure to lead, the family moved across the Missouri River to Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The soil contamination that has ravaged the health of Brunton's family and more than 65,000 other Omaha residents is the result of more than 100 years of pollution from Omaha's once-thriving lead and battery processing industries. Until 1997, when it closed, Asarco Company operated a lead refinery on the banks of the Missouri River in downtown Omaha that spewed lead into the community and violated the Clean Air Act.

The EPA conducted tests on area children over a 6-year period in the 1990s and found that between 26 and 42 percent of children tested had elevated blood lead levels. In 1999, the EPA began testing for lead soil contamination at child care centers and homes of children with elevated blood lead levels that were in the path of prevailing winds from the Asarco facility. About 42 percent of the yards tested met or exceeded the threshold for concern. The EPA proposed in February 2002 to put the Omaha lead site on the Superfund priority cleanup list; a decision is expected by the end of this year, but a funding shortfall could jeopardize cleanup.

"It's so sad," Barb Brunton says. "The effects of lead are so insidious. Lead has definitely taken its toll on my family." She believes it's important to tell her story because she doesn't want more children to suffer as her kids have. "I'm a pediatric nurse, and even so I wasn't able stop them from being exposed to lead."

Up to Top