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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / EPA director Andrew Wheeler speaks about the release of the final report of the national Superfund Task Force Monday, September 9, 2019 at Southside Community Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to Wheeler, the Southside Chattanooga Lead Site serves as a success story for the Superfund program. The site was added to the National Priorities List a year ago, which opened up additional funding opportunities and allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to replace the lead-tainted soil.

The EPA continues work to remediate lead on South Chattanooga properties as local residents and agency leaders share information about the importance of testing and what a cleanup entails for those living on contaminated land.

The Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of what will ultimately be a more-than-10-year effort to identify and remediate properties with elevated lead levels, but it needs cooperation from homeowners that has been slow to materialize.

"What we're finding is people aren't really giving us access until they see us out in the field cleaning up someone else's house," site remedial project manager Jasmin Jefferies said. "They'll ask if they can get on the sampling list while we're already cleaning up their neighbor's house, where we could have already gotten started cleaning up their property as well if we had that sampling information."

The agency is trying to obtain access agreements for the 5,483 yards in what it has designated the Southside Chattanooga Lead Superfund Site. So far, it has sampled 1,460 properties. It's made good progress in Highland Park and is beginning to gain headway in East Lake, Jefferies said. The site consists of properties in Cowart Place, Jefferson Heights, Southside Gardens, Richmond and Oak Grove as well as Highland Park and East Lake.

(Read more: Tennessee Products Superfund site removed from EPA's National Priorities List)

The agency plans to remediate all properties with lead levels above the federal benchmark of 360 parts per million within five years.

First, it is targeting the high-risk properties where the levels have surpassed 1,200 ppm. As those properties are found, the EPA's contractor — Kentucky-based C.M.C Environmental Services — replaces the topsoil in the yards as well as nearby properties above 360 ppm. It's more efficient for the contractors to do the remediation in sections, tackling properties on the same block at one time. Once they've addressed high-risk properties and the surrounding area, they'll finish by remediating remaining yards with levels above 360 ppm.

However, that entails getting access agreements from residents to test the soil, either from the tenant or the homeowner. Once the lead is tested, homeowners have to sign agreements allowing the remediation to occur.

That's where the EPA has faced some challenges.

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Contact remedial project manager Jasmin Jefferies at jefferies.jasmin@epa.gov

"The big concern is if they find lead, what will the outcome be," Alton Park Neighborhood Association President Gill Schropshire said at an EPA-led open house Monday evening at the Bethlehem Community Center.

There's been trepidation about whether remediation will destroy landscaping and how it will affect business for those who work from home — particularly residents who operate in-home day cares. The agency has been working to ensure people they are able to continue running their businesses during the remediation, and contractors will fully restore properties to the condition they found them in or better, according to Jefferies.

"They might see that their property was over the limit, but they might have intricate landscape that they don't want to be disturbed," she said. "Whatever we remove, we replace. We put the yard back to exactly how it was. If we have to remove a bush, we try to put a bush of the same size back into place."

Schropshire represents some who live just outside the site's boundaries and would like to see their properties tested and remediated. But that's not going to happen as part of this cleanup, according to the EPA.

The agency will stick to the boundaries it set and focus its cleanup there. The zone was created by pulling data to find where there were high concentrations of lead near former foundry sites. It then set boundaries to concentrate recovery efforts.

The EPA began investigating the Southside site in 2011 when a local resident reported lead poisoning. As a result, the agency had contractors remove contaminated soil from 84 properties on Read Avenue, Mitchell Avenue, Underwood Street (formerly Carr Street) and intersecting streets.

From there, the agency created the boundaries for the Southside Chattanooga Lead Site. It promised to clean all sites with lead readings above the federal EPA benchmark once the site was added to the National Priorities List, which happened in September 2018. The classification allows the EPA to clean the contaminated sites and forces responsible parties to pay or reimburse the government for cleanup. The act designates funding to the EPA when there is no viable responsible party.

The EPA also been working with the Tennessee Department of Health to urge all residents to get their children tested.

"The primary concern is for small children up to age 6," department environmental health assessor Becky Gorham said. "They tend to spend more time on the ground playing, hands in their mouths more often. If they've been around some of the soil that's contaminated or the dust has been carried into their home, they can touch that and put it in their mouth, and that can lead to lead poisoning."

Those with children who have not been tested are advised to ask their primary care physician for more information. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is also doing free blood lead screening for children ages 1-5. Those interested can contact dawn-ford@utc.edu.

Contact Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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