The first phase of Chattanooga Creek cleanup more than 20 years ago likely was only the tip of what would need to be remediated in the general area, a George W. Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official warned South Chattanooga residents in 2002.
"By no means," EPA project manager Nestor Young said at the time, "did I mean that this area was safe to live in and there will be no exposure to any contamination when we're done."
He also said residents would have to take action to improve water quality and limit contamination from other sources of pollution, such as runoff from junkyards and roadways.
And that was only the liquid variety of pollutants. In the ground, from some of the same companies whose residue fouled the creek, was lead. Brain-baking, sluggishness causing, developmentally delaying lead.
Why the initial Clinton-era cleanup didn't look into potential lead contamination, why the Bush official didn't hand off the area to another EPA section, why things moved so slowly in the Obama administration once lead poisoning was diagnosed in 2011 are all just part of the sad story that brought EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to town Monday to detail the government's plan to remediate one of the country's most toxic locations.
In the end, what had not been done had not been done. But, finally, something is being done, and the goal is to correct all the properties with elevated lead levels.
Yet, it's a shame that many of the neighborhoods — Alton Park, East Lake and Oak Grove, among others — have been largely black bastions. That population, unlike the white residents who originally populated them, didn't have the economic mobility to leave them as easily as whites left them years earlier for cleaner and larger suburbs. So poorer black residents have had a much longer tenure living with the variety of pollutants.
It seems ironic, given the Trump administration's reputation for repealing regulatory measures, that the current EPA is trying to change things. But that was Wheeler's message, and we hope the teeth of the federal government are, indeed, behind the effort to continue cleaning an eight-neighborhood area — known as the Southside Chattanooga Lead Site — that is listed among the nation's worst hazardous waste locales.
Work, fortunately, already has started. Initially, an EPA task force removed contaminated soil from 84 properties and began prioritizing remediation at other properties in the eight neighborhoods. However, to access more funding, the broader lead site had to be added to the National Priorities List. That did not occur until 2018.
Still, work on individual properties requires written agreements with landowners, and those — even with EPA and community workers — aren't easy to come by. The same individuals who count on government support in some areas are naturally suspicious about the federal government sticking its nose in other areas.
Why this house? Why now? Why not earlier? What's going to happen?
To date, some 1,122 yards have been sampled, but more than 4,000 remain. Another round of sampling begins next week, and information meetings to answer questions and obtain written agreements are scheduled the following week.
On many occasions, we would agree with former President Ronald Reagan, who said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
In this case, though, how could the situation get any worse? If the lead is in the ground, it's not going anywhere. And if it's in levels high enough to be damaging, living with the threat is much more dangerous than living without it. If the government is willing to exchange tainted soil for clean soil, by all means let it.
Wheeler said a five-step process to transform the worst waste sites involves expediting cleanup, reducing the financial burdens on involved parties, encouraging private investment, promoting community revitalization and strengthening partnerships.
Southside Community Park, where the EPA administrator spoke, is the result of such a process. Once the site of industry, and later a brownfield full of contaminated soil, it was remediated and repurposed for another use. In 2017, a park opened there and today hosts a variety of family activities.
"We were able to get dozens of high-priority locations cleaned up while the rest of the remediation process continues to move forward," Wheeler said. "It is important that we make progress at those sites and not sit around and wait for decades. We believe that a site on the National Priorities List should be just that, a national priority."
Despairing about why local neighborhoods with lead-tainted soil took longer to identify and begin to repair than some other sites is ultimately pointless, unless it prevents it from happening somewhere else.
The fact that remediation is underway and moving ahead is what's most critical.