DEPUE, Ill. — Mayor Eric Bryant was leading his usual tour the other day, driving visitors past the poisoned lake, around the abandoned bungalows, and over dusty ball fields until he reached a glittering metal mountain known here as the “Pile of Black Death.”
The 750,000-ton stack is a mix of lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals, blended with sand and abandoned by the businesses that once employed most of the town, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, in the Illinois River Valley.
When the wind blows, specks of toxic metals sail off the slag heap and land on the town’s modest houses and gardens, in school playgrounds, on church steps and, sometimes, in the water. “It’s odious,” said Bryant, a trim, 68-year-old former teacher. “We’re going on 21 years since they promised to clean it up.”
It is the lead — a toxin that can damage children’s brains at even low levels of exposure — that worries most people here.
During the last two years of the Obama administration, staff at the Environmental Protection Agency assured Bryant and local officials in other communities nationwide that they would soon issue new, more stringent guidelines for assessing the risk of lead contamination in soil. Those guidelines were expected by many to lower the threshold deemed dangerous for children and compel owners of contaminated properties to fund cleanup efforts. The effort was aimed at cutting the allowable level of lead at some of the nation’s most contaminated waste sites in half.
But in the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA instead issued an internal memo — obtained by STAT — that sidestepped the issue of a specific new threshold for acceptable lead levels. The agency provided only general guidance on the factors that should be used when determining whether cleanups are required. It did not, however, lower the threshold for soil cleanup to one that would translate into a blood level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, down from the current level of 10, as was expected.
The memo shocked outside experts and even some EPA officials, who privately expressed alarm about the issue.
“The fact remains that 10 is worse than five,” said Dr. David Bellinger, a Harvard Medical School professor who has served as an EPA adviser and who has studied the effects of lead on children. “There’s scientific medical consensus that adverse effects are occurring at level 5 or below. The cleanup target ought to be health-based, and based on the most current scientific information. There’s a lot of wiggle room left here.”
“The lower the blood lead, the better,” said Dr. Michael Kosnett, who served on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel on lead poisoning.
Critics say the decision endangers not only the children of DePue, but those living near more than 1,300 other sites, many of which are contaminated with lead and slated for review under the EPA’s Superfund program, which oversees the cleanup of some of the most toxic areas in the country.
In DePue, the demand for a cleanup has taken up much of Bryant’s time over the past 20 years: He has filed lawsuits, hired scientists, and repeatedly made his case that ExxonMobil and CBS Corp., which now own the old properties, must clean them up.
He said when he learned of the EPA memo, he was devastated.
“The health and safety of our children is not the main issue for EPA,” he said. “If it were, then there would be a new standard for lead in the ground. Without it, it’s very difficult for us to fight these big companies.”
The EPA declined to comment for this article. But Mathy Stanislaus, a former administrator at the agency who signed the memo, defended the decision, saying it would have been a mistake to set a strict standard for lead levels that would be deemed unsafe.
He said there were other factors that need to be considered, including how easily lead at a particular site could be absorbed into yards, houses, or other areas.
“What my memo is designed to do,” Stanislaus said, “is to enable the risk assessors to establish screening levels at each site, based on the current science.”
That is not a decision that has satisfied the people of DePue.
The EPA was supposed to do the fighting on behalf of places like this.
When Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 — officially the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — it charged the EPA with cleaning up the nation’s toxic waste sites, many of which had been left behind by abandoned factories.
Superfund was created as a “polluter pays” program, in which the parties responsible for creating old leaky waste dumps and polluting water would underwrite the cleanup. There were also, at one time, corporate taxes and fees designed to arm the EPA with resources to pursue the responsible parties, or to pay for the cleanup if they couldn’t be found.
Hundreds of these sites were traced to bankrupt companies, but many had been bought by businesses that were still operating, and others were linked to the military or defense contractors. In many cases, those entities have borne responsibility for cleanups.
And once they are identified, under the terms of the program, either the EPA or state environmental departments oversee the cleanup.
But virtually since the beginning, the Superfund program has been underfunded. Recently, the Trump administration has called for further cutting its budget, worrying communities that are still hoping for assistance.
Communities contaminated with lead have presented a particularly vexing issue for the EPA.
Lead can leach into the drinking water through old, leaded pipes, as was the case of Flint, Mich. It can chip off paint in homes built before 1978. It can also get into dirt, and pose a threat to children who play in it, or go airborne, landing in residents’ rooftops and gutters.
But exactly how much lead should be considered dangerous has been a matter of dispute.
For years, the CDC’s “level of concern” for blood lead levels was 10 micrograms or more per deciliter. But in 2012, the public health agency revised its guidelines, abandoning the concept of “level of concern” and declaring no level of lead in children’s blood was actually safe.
“Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement,” the CDC said. “Effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”
Nonetheless, the EPA had continued to rely on the 10-micrograms standard. Many EPA staffers and outside experts assumed that that would change when the agency issued updated guidance.
Kosnett, a member of the clinical faculty at the University of Colorado, Denver, said that after the CDC abandoned its “level of concern” concept, an EPA staffer attended an advisory committee meeting and said the agency would soon revise its guidelines accordingly.
“They said ‘‘We’re going to change the guidance,” said Kosnett. “It didn’t happen and we were waiting, year after year after year.”
So were the people of DePue. And the guidance did change, but not in the way they expected.
The village of DePue was founded in the early 1800s as Newport Steamboat Landing. Its spring-fed lake, 5 miles long and 3/4 miles wide, has access to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and helped establish it as a port. In the 1800s, DePue was known for commercial fishing and icehouses, which were suppliers to nearby breweries.
Around the turn of the century, Minera Point Zinc opened a smelter overlooking the town and Lake DePue.
The plant produced slab zinc, zinc dust, and sulfuric acid — all in big demand for ammunition and other material during World War I. Minera Point Zinc also built a lithopone production plant, which mixed barium sulfate and zinc sulfide to produce white pigment powder for paint.
By the 1960s, a few more plants popped up in DePue, and over the years, most changed hands among various firms. But by the early 1990s, with industrial production on decline across the United States, it all had been demolished.
The closings were tough on the town. Bryant’s father worked at the local plant, as did he, for years, before he became a math teacher.
Like elsewhere in the Rust Belt, as jobs dried up in DePue, many people who could afford to leave did. Others wanted to leave but couldn’t after the town was designated a Superfund site, crashing home values.
“Kids are still playing out on the playground. I did it myself. Am I impacted? Who knows?”
Jim Stowe, former Illinois EPA official who grew up in DePue
Today, DePue’s population is roughly 1,800, and more than 75 percent of the people remaining are low-income Hispanics, who came for factory and agricultural jobs, which are now sparse. The school offers lunches and other help, but Bryant said it’s not really enough.
He said that many parents suspect their children have been harmed by lead in the town, but since no one has conducted a research study, it’s impossible to know for sure.
“Kids are still playing out on the playground,” said Jim Stowe, a former Illinois EPA official who grew up in DePue. “I did it myself. Am I impacted? Who knows?”
“But a lower limit would require more cleanup.”
In DePue, residents had reason to hope the EPA would step in to help.
By 1989, ExxonMobil and CBS Corp. had assumed ownership of the contaminated sites after acquiring other companies. In 1995, the Illinois attorney general signed a consent order making the companies responsible for the cleanup. In 1999, EPA added the site to its Superfund National Priorities List. The agency found that soil samples taken outside homes here contained unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead.
Both companies have started working on parts of the five units that make up the Superfund site. A water treatment plant was installed, even though residents say when there are rainstorms, the contaminated water floods the system.
But ExxonMobil and CBS Corp. argued that because blood lead levels in DePue did not rise above 10 micrograms per deciliter — an estimated 20 percent of children in the town had levels between 5 and 10 micrograms — they were not required to stage a cleanup of many of the contaminated sites, polluted from years of toxic smoke, Bryant said.
“We urged them, begged them, pleaded with them to apply the revised CDC standard and they absolutely refused,” said Nancy Loeb, a law professor at Northwestern University and the lead pro bono attorney for DePue. “The companies are responding to our argument by saying, no, EPA guidance says 10.”
At that point, DePue was counting on new agency guidance to compel the companies to act. Local officials here didn’t know how much the cleanup effort would cost, but it would all but certainly be millions of dollars that the town did not have.
Still, Loeb was hopeful. In 2012, she and Bryant brought scientists from Northwestern University who had analyzed lead levels in DePue to Washington to meet with EPA officials. “We were told they expected to make the change within a month,” she recalled.
And a 2014 email provided by Loeb to STAT shows an EPA official at the time was still providing reason for optimism.
“We agree that contaminated sites in the residential areas of DePue pose a risk to human health (in particular children) and the cleanup should move forward as soon as possible,” the email read.
It was just a matter of time.
For DePue, the EPA memo issued three years later did not move anything forward.
Instead, it offered what Loeb and others saw as vague guidelines on how to assess whether lead in places like DePue presented a hazard to children. It avoided setting a specific threshold for blood lead levels that would indicate a danger.
It included a footnote on the second page that says lead at levels of 2 to 8 micrograms per deciliter have been shown in some cases to be associated with cognitive deficits in some children.
The EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management is “evaluating whether updated policy recommendations are needed to incorporate the current scientific consensus and national public health recommendations regarding lead exposure into land cleanup programs,” the memo said.
Charlene Falco, who oversees the DePue Superfund site for the Illinois EPA, said the vagueness of the memo hurts her efforts to move the cleanup job along.
“We are anxiously awaiting additional guidance from EPA about the model, so we can get a total picture, with less vagueness, about how to proceed,” she said.
In the meantime, ExxonMobil has argued that the lead cleanup applies in areas that are the responsibility of CBS, and that its ongoing work is not affected by the EPA memo.
“Exxon Mobil is committed to conducting remedial activities safely and in an effort to protect human health and the environment,” said Gail Lobin, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman.
CBS declined to comment for this article.
Bryant, who still lives in the blue clapboard house he grew up in, hasn’t given up on DePue. He loves the lake here — Lake DePue, which remains the site of the national speedboat championship every summer. And he dreams of a time when this town will be revived.
He has visions of a clean lake, a new marina, maybe even a casino and summer homes for Chicagoans that would rival Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva.
But first, the “Pile of Black Death” needs to be cleaned up.
Until it is, state officials have warned DePue residents to keep their children out of the school playgrounds and away from their own backyards. “They told us, ‘Don’t let the kids play in the dirt, don’t let them get dirty, make sure you wash their hands before they eat,”’ Bryant said.
That may not help much.
“If you play outside,” he said, “you get dirty.”