EPA expands residential lead testing to four Chattanooga neighborhoods

Dena Laborde, right, watches as Cornelius Martin operates a miniature bulldozer to remove soil contaminated with lead from the side yard of a Southside Chattanooga residence off Mitchell Avenue in 2013.

A years-long soil study of lead contamination levels in Chattanooga's residential areas is expanding to four new neighborhoods in 2017.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking landowner permission to sample yards in the Alton Park, College Hill Courts, Richmond and Mountain View neighborhoods next month to gauge whether soil in those areas contains unsafe levels of lead.

"A lot of this is precautionary," EPA remedial project manager Cathy Amoroso said after a Tuesday night public meeting at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center. "We don't know if we're going to find lead there, because we haven't collected any samples yet. But we have reason to believe it's possible."

There are 400 homes in the study area that the EPA would like to sample. Those in the testing area should have received information in the mail from the federal agency explaining the situation and requesting permission to conduct sampling.

The EPA's interest in the lead levels of Chattanooga's residential soil originated from a 2011 case in which a Read Avenue resident showed up at an emergency room with lead poisoning.

The case led to a large-scale assessment of the city's Southside neighborhood that resulted in the use of heavy machinery to remove lead from 68 of the 82 tested properties, according to newspaper archives.

EPA officials received data Monday from a fall study of 84 yards conducted in the Jefferson Heights, Cowart Place and Southside Gardens neighborhoods. The agency is in the process of sharing results with landowners and residents there, Amoroso said.

There are some yards that will require cleanup, she said.

Lead-based paint and leaded gasoline are typical sources of lead contamination in soil, but foundry waste from Chattanooga's industrial past is suspected to be the source of this area's problems. The sand-like mixture could contain elevated levels of lead.

Children are most susceptible to lead poisoning, University of Tennessee environmental health specialist Bonnie Hinds explained at Tuesday's meeting. Young children who play in lead-contaminated dirt and then put dirty hands in their mouths could be at risk.

Residents of the soon-to-be tested areas filled the meeting room with questions for the EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials.

Many said they have lived in the area for decades, since well before the lead poisoning case was discovered in 2011.

"We've been living in this area since 1968, in the same house," said Omelia Flemister, adding that she raised seven healthy children there. Flemister planned to allow the EPA to conduct sampling in her yard.

Her daughter, Jacqueline Sorrell, said the family felt that some of the area's former industries had released contaminants.

"I might," Sorrell said when asked if she would get tested for lead. "I'll have to read these samples."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.