The Superfund Next Door: First in a series on the EPA’s efforts to clean up a Superfund site in two historically Black communities on Atlanta’s west side.
ATLANTA—As a little boy, Byron Amos often played with dark, volcanic-like rocks that he found among the lush greenery that drapes the houses and yards in Vine City and that makes the historically Black neighborhood worthy of its name.
Now 49, married and a grandfather, Amos still lives in the west side Atlanta house where he grew up and represents the area on the Atlanta City Council. He found out during a neighborhood meeting that those rocks he had tossed around as a kid actually weren’t rocks at all. They were chunks of slag—a byproduct of smelting that can contain high levels of lead—and Vine City was rife with it.
“I actually had to look at it real good because I remember playing with pieces of rock growing up, and that was it.” Amos said. While the news made Amos do a double take of denial thinking, “that’s not lead,” he was ultimately not surprised. “We’ve been known it’s contaminated,” he said.
In 2018, a graduate student found high levels of lead, a powerful neurotoxin, in a few urban gardens across the west side of Atlanta and alerted the Environmental Protection Agency. Since 2019, the EPA has been testing soil in the study area, but mistrust from residents has slowed that process. Many who live in the two historically Black neighborhoods in the study area view the federal government’s efforts with a jaundiced eye. They suspect the remediation is part of an effort to help gentrification flourish by pushing them off the now-valuable land where Black Atlantans have lived with toxins for a long time.
So far, the agency has been cleaning the site under its emergency response program for short-term cleanups, but the projects under this program have time and funding limits. In March of this year, the EPA added the site that spans 627 acres to the Superfund National Priorities List, making it eligible to receive federal funding for the investigation and long-term cleanup. As a Superfund site, the EPA will oversee remediation and evaluate public health and environmental risk associated with the contamination. Under the current scope, EPA officials say the cleanup will take about four more years, and the site will likely grow by as many as hundreds more properties. They estimate the entire cost of the remediation to be upwards of $49 million.
It will take testing of residents’ soil and blood to understand the extent of the contamination and its harm to residents’ health. Despite not doubting that their homes could be polluted with lead, some residents say that the community’s history of racism and displacement makes them wary of allowing the government into their homes to confirm it.
Many have ignored letters from the federal agency looking to test their soil first and replace it for free if polluted. They point to how their community has been disregarded by the government over the years and say the EPA’s current sense of urgency begs the question, “Why now?”
“That was just a joke because of the way they treat us on the west side,” said resident “Able” Mable Thomas, a community activist and former state representative. “They want our property.”
Vine City and English Avenue are adjacent west side neighborhoods that border a former industrial corridor near what is now downtown Atlanta. The block on which Amos lives is bounded by roads still called Electric Avenue and Foundry Street. While it is unknown exactly how slag with high levels of lead found its way into the residents’ properties, the EPA suspects the contamination could have come from foundries that operated nearby during the early and mid-20th century. Slag was commonly used as fill nationwide before 1974.
Both communities were considered prestigious places for Black people to live in the early 20th century. Some families, such as Amos’, have remained there for generations. Not far from where Amos grew up stands the home of Alonzo F. Herndon, who came out of slavery, opened a barbershop and established an insurance company that eventually made him Atlanta’s first Black millionaire. The house where Martin Luther King Jr. lived with his wife and children is a short drive from Amos’ house too, as is the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of some of the nation’s best-known historically Black colleges.
In the 1960s, the area deteriorated. Blight transformed what used to be middle-class neighborhoods into a corner of poverty pocked with crime, vacant lots and abandoned houses. Revitalization efforts, including through urban gardens, have succeeded to varying degrees over the last couple of decades.
Three years ago, Sam Peters, then a doctoral student at Emory University, discovered lead contamination in the two neighborhoods while conducting research for his dissertation. Further research on the site revealed slag with lead levels up to 10 times the EPA’s threshold for safe lead levels in soil. Lead contamination is the second most frequently encountered contaminant found at Superfund sites, following arsenic.
Since sampling by the EPA began in 2019, the study area has grown from 60 properties to almost 2,100, about half of which have yet to be tested. The agency has found 412 properties to be contaminated. Of those, they have cleaned 145 as of Friday.
English Avenue resident Rosario Hernandez and EPA onsite coordinator Chuck Berry informed a group of residents at a neighborhood meeting of the issue. Attendees shrugged at the presentation, said Thomas, who served on the Georgia General Assembly’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee. She is the founder of Greater Vine City Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit that provides resources to families in the area.
“Oh my God,” Thomas sighed. Westside residents had already been dealing with the impact of stormwater flooding, sewer overflow and environmental degradation in low-lying areas. Now, lead pollution in the dirt could potentially have been affecting community residents’ health for generations. The struggle to fix these problems, she said, is exhausting.
“You can’t organize about everything,” said Thomas. “You have to pick the fights. People work every day.”
For the time being, Thomas said she’ll stick to helping address flooding, mold and mildew. “We do what we can do, but you can’t do all that stuff,” she said.
To help improve community outreach about cleaning up the contamination, Emory partnered with Historic Westside Gardens, a small nonprofit that maintains urban gardens, provides fresh food to residents and educates them about healthy eating.
Area residents have limited options for purchasing fresh food. Besides a Walmart on the southern edge of the site, there are only a few small shops and convenience stores. The area lacks a comprehensive public transit system, making it harder for residents to get to supermarkets.
To eat healthily, many residents grow vegetables in their yards, said Hernandez, the group’s executive director. Peppers and okra are the best-selling vegetables from her gardens.
“We sometimes have to buy our food at the gas station,” said Hernandez. “This is not a hobby.”
Over the past three years, Hernandez, a retired teacher who worked for 20 years with students with learning disabilities or behavior issues, has helped the EPA reach more people in her community. She walks up to families at parks and makes presentations at community meetings to urge her neighbors to get their soil tested and educate themselves on the health risks their children might face from lead exposure. According to the CDC, there is no safe blood lead level in children. Even low levels of lead exposure can negatively affect children’s cognitive and behavioral health.
A grandmother of four, Hernandez worries that pollution has already affected her family’s health. One of her granddaughters who grew up in the neighborhood suffers from epilepsy and attention deficit disorder.
“You don’t see that you may be breathing in these particles,” Hernandez tells her neighbors. “You may be tracking it into your house when you walk outside. You may be bringing it up to your mouth, so why take the chance?”
Research has shown disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution—including heavy metal contamination—among low-income and minority populations.
While lead poisoning mainly targets the nervous system, it can affect almost every organ and system in the human body. Among children, the health effects of high lead exposure can vary from severe stomach aches to brain damage.
Exposure to high levels of lead in pregnant women can result in premature births or miscarriages and damage men’s reproductive organs. The harmful neurological effects from lead exposure are especially dire among children younger than six years old, given their rapid brain development and the fact that they are more likely to put dirt in their mouths. Research also suggests that childhood lead exposure contributes to lower academic performance, lower earning potential, higher crime rates and shortened life spans of those exposed to the neurotoxin. The extent to which people in the affected neighborhoods have been harmed by the contamination is not yet known.
The EPA has been taking soil samples from properties in the area, prioritizing those occupied by children or pregnant women. The EPA then offers free soil cleanup to those whose soil has lead levels above the agency’s threshold level of lead contamination. They remove about two feet of soil, replace it with clean dirt and top it off with sod. If the homeowner opts in, their trees can also be removed and replaced with new ones.
After much thought and armed with facts, Amos signed up last month to have the EPA test the soil at his home.
“I would like to know because I have three granddaughters, and ultimately, they’re going to end up [playing] in the same dirt I was in, so if there’s something wrong with it, I need to know,” Amos said. But the decision to trust the EPA to come onto their properties and clean up their yards is not as simple for others. There are fears that the government is asking to clean up their yards as part of an effort to develop the neighborhoods and attract wealthier tenants who can pay higher rents. More than 80 percent of residents on the west side are renters.
They question the government’s intentions because of the lack of progress in their neighborhood due to many years without investment from the government. For generations, residents have fought to make their community a healthier place. Even in the early 20th century, when it was risky for Black people to speak up about inequality, residents pushed back against pollution from a nearby incinerator and protested the city’s failure to properly dispose of waste.
“When you add all of this stuff, you begin to understand some of the environmental assault that this community has been under,” said Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, health and environmental science professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. “Community members in many instances felt like their voices have been unheard by government agencies that can lead to a lack of trust in those entities.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has made environmental justice issues a top priority. They pledged that 40 percent of climate, energy and infrastructure spending would go to overburdened and marginalized neighborhoods like the Westside. Last year, the EPA proposed that more than one dozen sites across the country, including Westside, be added to the National Priorities List and announced a $1 billion investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to accelerate the cleanup of Superfund sites across the country. Whether the neighborhoods become healthy communities without displacing their residents could be a test of Biden’s environmental justice efforts.
The EPA is currently investigating the extent of overall contamination in the site and the risks to human health and the environment. They said that they have only found significant levels of lead in the soil so far, and not in the water. They plan on releasing a proposed plan for long-term cleanup for public comment this fall.
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Some residents say that the agency needs to do more to keep residents informed because mail is not always reliable and that they would like to see funds used to compensate the community for being involved in the outreach. Hernandez wants to see more neighbors doing door-to-door knocking, but she said many of them have too much on their plate already. Amos said residents need to learn about it from their neighbors, or else they will not listen or trust the process.
“Those who understand [the contamination] are a very small portion of the population,” said Amos. “The rest is just trying to survive. They couldn’t care less if the soil is contaminated. It’s been contaminated all their life. It’s just not something in their daily lives.”
The EPA granted Emory University $1.35 million to work with community members to study children’s exposure to lead and other environmental contaminants in the area. Emory is giving Historic Westside Gardens a total of $15,000 from the EPA grant to help raise community awareness.
More local volunteers are needed to talk to residents in order to build trust. But people are not likely to come out and knock on doors if they’re not getting paid for their time, Hernandez said.
The goal is to sign up 140 children ages 6 or younger and collect a small blood sample from each of them. However, the researchers encountered another hurdle of mistrust when they began outreach earlier this year. Some residents don’t want to get pricked by needles.
Eri Saikawa, the environmental scientist who is leading the Emory study, said to assuage those doubts, her team sought out a technology that suctions and is meant to hurt less.
“We are trying to adapt to the community’s needs,” Saikawa said. “We want to build trust.”
Only three families have signed up so far.