Are Toxic Chips Resurfacing in West Dallas Yards?

The black specks that appear to grow out of Elida Lopez's driveway have the distinct look of industrial waste. And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, they probably are. These squared off chunks of rubber, called battery casings or battery chips, are byproducts of car-battery recycling. In other cities, the EPA  has described such battery chips as "hazardous waste" that may contain "high levels" of lead, which is a dangerous neurotoxin, especially to children. "If you find a large amount of battery case chips, do not disturb the battery case chips and soil, and immediately call the Illinois EPA Bureau of Land, or the Madison County Planning and Development Department ... for help,"  EPA's Region 5 warns in one public advisory.  

Here in Dallas, where EPA's Region 6 is headquartered, it's easy to find yards speckled with what looks a lot like battery chips. The above photographs capture the driveway in west Dallas where Elida Lopez lives. She says she learned what the black chunks were well after she moved into her home. Now she tells her grandchildren not to touch the soil, just to be safe. 

From the 1930s to 1984, a company called RSR Corporation operated a notorious lead car-battery smelter in west Dallas, a section of the city that became one of few areas where black people could live in the segregated post-World War II era. Today, west Dallas remains inhabited mainly by minorities. Former Justice of the Peace and community activist Luis Sepulveda says that truck drivers hauling away waste from the smelter used to offer cash to the poor people living nearby in exchange for letting the battery waste be dumped in their yards. In the 1990s, after a congressional investigation and years of protests, the Environmental Protection Agency eventually declared the 13.6-mile swath of land in west Dallas surrounding the abandoned smelter to be a superfund site and dug out contaminated soil from 431 homes. The EPA said the clean-up was complete by 1995. Yet in the two decades that followed, substances that resemble battery chips have continued to appear in certain homes like that of Elida Lopez, who moved in after the smelter had already closed. It's a sign, Sepulveda and other environmentalists say, that the EPA didn't dig deep enough when cleaning out the soil at some properties, or may have completely overlooked properties that were clearly contaminated. 

EPA's Region 6 Superfund Division Director Carl Hedlund and associate director John Meyer spoke to the Observer over the phone last week after being shown the photograph below, which also came from Lopez's yard. 

They argued that the photograph failed to prove that Lopez's yard was contaminated. "First off, battery chips, per se, are not contaminated. They were sometimes found to be contaminated," EPA Region 6 Superfund Director Carl Hedlund told the Observer. "A single battery chip, like your photo there, is not a threat ... and the remedy did not call for picking up every last chip or piece of slag," Hedlund said.  

He added that many people at the time did not give the federal government permission to test or clean their yards. "A lot of people did not grant access to us when we first asked. It's voluntary. You don't want the federal government just dropping in at people's properties."

Yet a local says that there's no way to know whether or not a single chip is a problem unless it's tested. "The only way to determine whether there's an exposure out of lead on those materials to children is to see if there is lead on them," says Dr. Trey Brown, an environmental toxicologist with Baylor University. The toxicologist says he is currently working on a new project to determine levels of lead in west Dallas soil, but says the results will not be ready for months. He can't yet comment on how contaminated, if at all, west Dallas remains with lead. He says his work has been embraced by locals. "The neighborhood welcomed us with open arms to come in and take samples," Brown says.

In an email, Tulane University toxicologist Dr. Howard Mielke writes that he would assume the chips are contaminated. "In my opinion if there are battery chips lying around this is a clear indication that lead is probably nearby," Mielke writes. "The chips usually are contaminated with lead dust and can be highly hazardous. So in my opinion this is a site that needs scrutiny, and most likely clean-up."

The EPA has a long, tortured history of its cleaning of lead-tainted soil in west Dallas. In the 1980s, a congressional investigation found that the agency's then Deputy Administrator, John W. Hernandez Jr., had blocked a proposed 1981 clean-up of soil in west Dallas.   

Community organizers credit Sepulveda with pressuring the feds to clean west Dallas. This has not always been appreciated by the EPA. In 1993, a leaked memo obtained by the Dallas Morning News revealed that at least one unidentified EPA official had searched for ways to isolate Sepulveda. "We do not expect to overcome Sepulveda," the memo reportedly said. "But we can focus on the 'silent majority.' ... At some point they will turn against him and want him out of their way."
The EPA's Region 6 directors Hedlund and Meyer downplay Sepulveda's role in pressuring the EPA to act on lead contamination in Dallas. Hedlund claims that Seulveda has never sued the EPA, even though court documents clearly show his group filed a suit. "We never got sued by Luis Sepulveda. He was an activist at the time ... the community was divided. We had the blacks and the Hispanics, and they didn't agree with each other, they didn't agree with us. He was a protester, but he took no legal action," Hedlund said on the phone. Public records clearly show that the organization Sepulveda founded, West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice, sued the EPA in 1991 and filed another complaint in 1999.  "...the Coalition, an unincorporated association of West Dallas residents, initiated this action seeking an order directing the EPA not to implement the then planned removal action," Judge Jerry Buckmeyer wrote in an opinion. The EPA added the site to Superfund program's National Priorities List in 1995. 
So is Elida Lopez's yard contaminated? At the Observer's request, the EPA looked for test results from 1992, when the agency tested the property. EPA Region 6 spokesman Joe Hubbard said the results are stored at an off-site facility and may not even be public if the property owner at the time signed a non-disclosure agreement. "If there are issues or concerns presented by citizens, we'll look into it," he said.

So if you have a yard full of possibly contaminated rubber chips, contact the EPA Region 6 at 800-887 6063. And let us know what they say, do and find.         

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn