By Bo Emerson
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Environmental Protection Agency will test for toxic lead residue in Morningside and other Atlanta neighborhoods surrounding a former lead-smelting factory, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
At 740 Lambert Drive N.E., near Cheshire Bridge and Piedmont, the Metalico Evans factory processed 5,000 tons of lead a year from 1935 until the mid-1990s. Until 1977, it operated without air pollution control devices.
The factory was replaced by a cement plant in 2003. Bulldozers leveled the buildings and scraped away the soil before the cement company took ownership.
But for several decades lead dust would have left the factory chimneys to drift over the thousands of residences in the nearby Lindbergh, Cheshire Bridge and Morningside neighborhoods.
Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and can cause brain damage, reduced intelligence, developmental problems, stunted growth, seizures and death. Lead dust can drift three to five miles from a factory source.
Inquiries about the defunct factory from a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009 led to an EPA assessment of the risks posed by fallout and runoff. This month, USA Today published the results of a yearlong investigation into hundreds of similar “ghost factories” around the country, mentioning three Atlanta facilities.
The EPA’s assessment and a subsequent analysis, completed in March, caused enough concern to warrant the additional soil tests, EPA officials said. At the Lambert Drive site, the EPA found soil with lead concentrations above the 400 parts-per-million considered safe by the agency, but no sampling was done outside the boundaries of the factory site.
The preliminary analysis “assumes a release [of lead dust] exists,” EPA Region 4 spokesman James Pinkney said in a written statement. Pinkney said the EPA is developing a plan to sample the soil in residential yards around the former factory, and the soil of waterways that drain the area. That sampling will begin this summer, he said.
The EPA declined requests for a phone interview to discuss in greater detail the potential for contamination and the history of the agency’s actions to safeguard residents.
The agency has not yet alerted residents of neighborhoods around the plant about any potential hazard in their soil. Several told the AJC they were unaware that a lead factory ever existed nearby.
“Nobody’s mentioned it,” said Dot Marrinson, 91, who has lived in Morningside since 1963.
Rich Sussman, a retired National Parks Service executive, who’s lived and gardened in the area since 1974, said he had no inkling there was a smelting factory less than a mile from his house. “I never knew it was there.”
There were at least two other sites in Atlanta where lead apparently was processed, both owned by the Miller Metal Co. One was in a spot now occupied by the Williams Street exit from the Downtown Connector. The other was in an area on downtown’s Decatur Street that became the Grady Homes housing project, owned by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
When the apartments at Grady Homes were slated for demolition in 2006 to make way for redevelopment, the EPA suggested that the housing authority conduct further testing at the property.
The AHA removed a few thousand tons of contaminated soil in 2008, before transforming the area into a mixed-use apartment community called Ashley at Auburn Pointe, according to AHA spokesman Rick White.
When it settles to the ground, lead tends to bind with bare soil, according to Marsha Black, associate professor in environmental health science at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. It poses a special danger to growing children who might play in the dirt and then put dirty hands or dirty toys in their mouths.
Local and federal environmental officials “should have done a lot more in the last few years” to inform residents about the area’s history, said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “If credible evidence demonstrates that people are at risk, there should be some path toward addressing the problem,” she said.
Based on its investigation to date, the EPA has raised concerns about possible waterborne lead contamination. The Lambert Drive property drains into the south fork of Peachtree Creek, and from there into the Chattahoochee River. Lead dust that washed off the property would have ended up in the creek sediment, and possibly been ingested by any of the dozens of fish species that live there.
The EPA’s report pointed out that fishermen catch many of those fish, and that some anglers consume what they catch.
Sussman also sometimes makes a supper from his backyard bounty of radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets and basil. A Master Gardener, he’s had his soil tested many times — for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. But not for lead.
He never thought it necessary.
He still doubts there’s any need. But he’d like to know.
Staff writer Craig Schneider contributed to this article.