Near the middle of Omaha’s twenty-seven square mile Lead Superfund Site, at 3416 Cass St. is the Gifford Park Community Garden. Local residents of this seventy percent rental community of older, mostly single-family homes in midtown, started the garden in 2001 in a vacant lot. The garden is both a tranquil focus for the neighbourhood, and a hive of industry in the spring and summer, overflowing with organic bounty.
In the back is a tool-shed and forty-four “youth gardens” – raised beds specifically for the youth gardening program. In the front, a profusion of flowering perennials, attracting butterflies and other pollinators, frames a handmade sign, proclaiming: “Grow in Gifford Park”, and its mission: “to provide opportunities for people to grow plants and vegetables, and to grow personally through healthy activities”.
These twenty-seven square miles were designated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Lead Superfund site after thirty-three percent of children in eastern Omaha tested high for blood lead level concentrations in 1998 (1). One hundred and thirty years of lead laced emissions from riverfront lead smelters and refining operations had settled on surrounding residential lawns and gardens, and poisoned the soil. In 2002 some residential type properties in Omaha were found to have non-foundation soil lead concentration of 2,500 ppm (2).
Lead occurs naturally in soils at concentrations from ten to fifty parts per million(ppm) (3); and it stays there - it does not biodegrade. It wasn’t so long ago that our houses were painted with lead based paint, and our gas was leaded too. Lead was seen as benign. Now we know differently.
The EPA’s “Second Five Year Report For Omaha Lead Superfund Site” reports that children under the age of seven, are the most susceptible to lead poisoning from contaminated soil and flaking paint, as, not only do they have more contact with dirt and dust, they absorb lead more easily, and are much more sensitive to its adverse effects. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, with detrimental effects on the nervous system, “including learning deficits, reduced intelligence, and adverse effects on behaviour."(3)
In 2004, the EPA set an acceptable lead level standard for mid-yard residential soil of 800 ppm, and in 2009 they lowered it to 400 ppm for the Omaha Superfund site. However, in 2009, California set a much lower standard of 80 ppm (4), and in 2013, USA Today reported that scientists and child health advocates claimed that EPA’s 2001 standards give “a false sense of safety” (5); Even the EPA in 2019, in their “Second Five Year Report” on the Omaha site, admitted that “the clean-up level suggested for residential yards may not protect children to current Center for Disease Control (CDC) acceptable reference value blood-level concentrations” (6).
To try to stop the lead poisoning of children in Omaha, the EPA excavated up to one foot of soil from high testing yards, replacing it with “clean” soil and sod. They also undertook lead-based paint stabilization, and provided HEPA vacs for lead laced dust. By 2015, ninety three percent (13,090) of eligible properties had had their soil remediated (7).
Chris Foster, long time president of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association, has been involved with the Community Garden since its inception. He explained that the soil lead level was tested in the beginning, after initial grading, and again some years later, and each time showed an acceptable level (8).
The Omaha Lead Registry,
https://planninghcd.cityofomaha.org/omaha-lead-registry(9) lists 3416 Cass St. as having a soil sample lead result of 364.26 ppm as of the eighteenth of August, 2004. (Click on this link to look up the address of any residential property in the Omaha Superfund area to find out the lead status of the property).
In my conversation with Chris, he was surprised that the 2004 registered lead level was this high. Hopefully, the organic gardening practices at the Community Garden, which have focused on adding organic matter and compost to the soil, will have improved the soil structure, raised the pH, and so reduced the availability of its lead. Even so, after our discussion, and in light of the newly suggested “safe” lead levels, he is keen to get the garden tested again.
Please see Adam Fletcher Sasse’s “A History of Lead Poisoning in North Omaha” (10) for more information on the history of lead-based industry in Omaha, and on the continuing severe consequences of over one hundred years of “lead rain” on children, families, special education services, and the criminal justice system.