Work continues in Joplin to rid tornado-damaged yards of exposed lead

Two years after a tornado tore through Joplin, excavation work continues on yards where the storm uncovered high levels of lead.

The city said of the 1,091 yards sampled for lead in Joplin’s disaster zone , 426 needed to have lead-contaminated soil removed. As of last week, 182 of those properties had been excavated, The Joplin Globe reported.

Most of the lead found in the yards was discovered where a tree was uprooted, while mine waste containing lead was sometimes exposed where driveways and foundations stood before the tornado, which struck on May 22, 2011.

Grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency is being used for the work. So far, about $3.5 million has been awarded and the city has about $1 million of that left, said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department.

The city and the EPA are unsure how many yards will need to be excavated, he said.

“There could be 1,300 to 1,400 vacant lots out there,” Pekarek said. “With 39 percent of the lots testing positive for lead, we could have 400 to 500 lots that are eligible in the tornado zone.”

This is the second time the EPA has organized a large cleanup of lead-contaminated soil in Joplin. In the mid-1990s, more than 2,300 yards were excavated of fallout from a lead smelter in northwest Joplin.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, they covered up the chat and built on top of it,” said Mark Doolan, who directed that EPA project. “That’s why we did not find any contamination (in the current area) when we looked for it back in the ’90s. When the tornado came through, uprooting trees and tearing up foundations, that exposed lead that had been buried for 75 to 100 years.”

Once contamination is found, a contractor working for the city excavates to a maximum depth of 18 inches and new dirt is brought in.