The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is asking residents in parts of some west Atlanta neighborhoods to get in touch and give the agency permission to test their soil for lead.
The agency has been sampling yards and removing soil in parts of Vine City and English Avenue since 2018, after an Emory graduate student found dangerously high levels of lead in the area.
Since then, they’ve tested close to 500 yards for lead, but they’d like to sample more.
“We’ve only received access for about 50 percent of the properties in our study area,” Leigh Lattimore, remedial project manager for the EPA, said at a virtual community meeting Thursday evening. “We’re really focused on getting the remaining 50 percent and sampling those properties.”
Of the properties the EPA has tested, 205 had high enough lead levels to qualify for the agency to pay to remove and replace the soil. That work has been finished on 59 properties; two are getting worked on now. The EPA began excavating yards a year ago.
The coronavirus has made outreach to residents, and getting signed permission to sample yards, harder, said Abena Moore, community involvement coordinator with the EPA.
“We are restricted from going door-to-door right now,” she said. “In addition, a high number of property owners live out of the state or the country. And lastly, there are properties that have been abandoned, and we haven’t been able to find the property owner.”
The EPA has also had a tough time getting in touch with property owners even once they have been able to do the sampling, in order to schedule removal for those that need it.
“We can’t just show up and start digging the property up,” EPA on-scene coordinator Chuck Berry said.
Berry said the EPA has spent about $8 million out of $18 million in authorized funding for the cleanup.
“If you do the math you find out that’s not enough money for us to complete the project, but we don’t envision having any issues getting that additional funding,” he said. “This project is a regional priority, indeed it’s a national priority for the agency.”
The Emory team that first brought the lead to the EPA’s attention is also still conducting testing, though separate from the EPA’s efforts. They’re working with the state of Georgia and other groups to sample yards around the state. They recently found high levels of lead at a handful of other places in Atlanta, and they plan to run another round of tests this spring.
Lead is especially dangerous for children; it can affect their brains and nervous systems.
According to the EPA, the lead in English Avenue and Vine City likely came from foundries that used to operate in Atlanta, when their waste was used as fill.