Explosion at factory in Oakwood Village, Ohio raises fears of lead contamination
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Nearly a month after the explosion at a metal fabrication plant in the Cleveland suburb of Oakwood Village, Ohio, community and health advocates say they still don’t have clear answers to the pressing question of whether the explosion released harmful levels of lead into the area. They also wonder why those who live and work near the explosion weren’t promptly informed that the lead in the facility could pose a risk.
Investigators are still investigating the causes of the Feb. 20 explosion at the I. Schumann & Co. plant, which WKYC-TV said killed a 46-year-old maintenance worker and hospitalized 13 others. The afternoon explosion sent billows of black smoke and flames into the air and scattered molten debris the length of a football pitch. The plant remains closed while the cleanup continues.
The incident has angered members of the wider community, like Yvonka M. Hall, a public health administrator who leads the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition and leads the Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH) volunteers. . Hall said government officials “dropped the ball” by not immediately telling residents the site of the blast contained lead and had already been cited by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. for hazardous waste and disposal violations.
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Such frustration follows the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just 75 miles away. The toxic chemicals on this derailed train were later burned in a “controlled release,” sparking skepticism among residents of federal and state claims that clean water and air were sure.
But Hall said unlike in eastern Palestine, a predominantly white community where the outcry prompted a Senate hearing, concerns about potentially devastating lead exposure in his community, which is two-thirds black, have been largely ignored. Although residents of eastern Palestine also struggled in the first hours and days after the derailment to voice their concerns, Monday will mark a full month since the explosion in the village of Oakwood.
Several people were hospitalized after an explosion at a metallurgical plant in Bedford, Ohio on February 20. (Video: Eric Downing via Storyful)
During that month, none of the bulletins or press releases from local officials regarding the explosion mentioned lead; a letter to residents from the Oakwood Village Fire Chief after the explosion said neither the EPA nor third-party cleanup groups notified city officials of any hazardous materials released. CLASH struggled to get timely responses from the Ohio EPA on whether the agency was looking for lead contamination and what the preliminary findings were, according to posts reviewed by The Washington Post. Hall, who worked for the Cleveland Health Department, said there are protocols for springing into action after a disaster and she remains critical of the Ohio EPA for not addressing the Oakwood Village explosion as such.
“Do you see that we have a community that is almost entirely white and got all the EPA resources almost immediately? Hall said.
“I have to look at this through a racial equity lens,” she added. “If it was in eastern Palestine, we would see boots on the ground and [officials] make automated calls to the community.
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio EPA, said in a statement that the agency takes explosions such as the one at I. Schumann seriously and will work with an independent environmental contractor hired by the metallurgical company, who must adhere to a revised plan. and approved by the Ohio EPA.
“It is important to emphasize that the Ohio EPA has been working with the contractors and the company since the day of the fire and will continue to oversee the work to ensure any necessary corrective actions are completed,” Lee wrote.
The fire that caused the explosion occurred in the facility’s production area where lead and cadmium are not stored, which “diminished the potential risk to the public during the fire”, wrote Lee.
Hall argues that a major concern is whether the lack of initial action — such as an evacuation order or lead exposure warnings — may have already resulted in lead exposure in children, which are the most vulnerable to its harmful effects throughout life. Hall said many local residents are likely unaware there could be a lead hazard from the blast; lead is odorless and visually indistinguishable from other dust and particles on surfaces.
CLASH members who routinely analyze state and federal EPA data on local polluters and lead exposure risks have mapped more than 30 child care centers within three miles of the explosion. No amount of lead exposure for children is safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For children under 6, lead in their bloodstream can cause brain damage.
Fears about lead contamination in Ohio go back decades, especially concerns about lead paint. More than two-thirds of the state’s housing stock was built before 1980, according to the Ohio Department of Public Health. (Lead paint was banned from residential use nationwide in 1978.) The concerns are especially pronounced in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and Oakwood Village. According to the Cleveland Clinic, lead poisoning rates among children there are four times higher than the national average.
“It’s a lifelong impact,” Hall said. “The lack of action could have potentially changed the lives of some young people for the rest of their lives. Lead moves from your blood to your bones as a teenager and then to your organs as an adult. And it can still do damage as adults.
The Ohio EPA said air quality monitoring the day after the explosion and the days following did not show lead levels that would endanger public health.
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A previous message from the Ohio EPA to CLASH reviewed by The Post stated that there was no air quality data since the day of the explosion because the air monitor was not working that day- there.
On March 6, CLASH commissioned independent testing of soil samples at a dozen sites around the plant and urged the Ohio EPA to do the same. Because lead is a heavy particle that settles in soil, CLASH said, soil was a better indicator than air quality of how much lead was potentially being released.
Lead, which occurs naturally in soil at very low levels, is considered hazardous according to EPA thresholds when it exceeds 400 parts per million in children’s play areas and 1,200 ppm in outdoor areas. not playful. Most of the samples fell below the play area threshold, although two sites near the plant showed elevated lead levels, including one at 3,144 ppm, more than 2½ times the highest threshold.
Lee confirmed that the Ohio EPA has received and will review the results of CLASH’s independent lead soil test.
Judith Enck, former regional administrator for the federal EPA, agreed with CLASH’s assessment of testing soil for lead, including schools and playgrounds – and found community frustrations without surprise.
“It’s very common to have trouble getting the attention of a local EPA. I often tell groups to get their state legislator or city council involved,” said Enck, whose work at the EPA focused on the eastern United States and Puerto Rico.
“Ohio EPA is known to be more lax in enforcement,” she said of the agency. “I wouldn’t expect them to push hard.”
As the one-month milestone approached, CLASH took their concerns to the next level.
On Thursday, Hall and others met with federal EPA officials in Region 5, which encompasses the Great Lakes region, to discuss their frustrations with Oakwood Village’s response and demand action.
Hall described a positive response from officials such as Matthew Tejada, deputy assistant administrator for environmental justice at the federal EPA. Tejada said the federal agency would send a letter to daycare centers near the plant explosion, alerting them to potential dangers from the blast and advising them to get tested, Hall said. She also urged the EPA to provide testing resources and soil testing.
After Thursday’s meeting, Hall reflected on what it took to bring attention to the Oakwood Village community: CLASH had advocates who volunteered their time and money to make calls, send letters and pay for their own third-party testing. They also had Hall’s public health connections and expertise, as well as members who understand the health risks of lead.
“Luckily we knew where to go on the ladder, but that we had to climb all those rungs just to get here, it’s ridiculous,” Hall said, adding that she couldn’t help but think of other communities that will face the same ascent. and don’t even know where to find the ladder.