But around thirty years ago, the Riverfront downtown was home to one of the nation's biggest polluters.
On a dreary day, the sky is obscured and dark- but still nowhere close to the view of the Omaha side of the river when the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) plant was in full swing. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge looks over where the site used to be, standing less than 100 feet away from what is considered the central point in the superfund site zone. Anywhere in the zone you can see the effect of the hundred years of pollution ASARCO gave to the area by looking up any residential area on the Omaha Lead Registry at https://dogis.org/omahaleadsimple/.
The ASARCO plant was one of 8 main polluters in the Omaha area, operating for over a century, and is the one with the most visible impact on Omaha today. From the riverfront downtown, anywhere from the Bob Kerry Bridge to the Gene Leahy Mall, the long stretch of pavement making up the Lewis and Clark Landing is the result of the legacy of industrialization and pollution that’s been left. In the decades right before the opening of the ASARCO, the population of Omaha exploded from around 16 thousand to almost 140 thousand people After the plant was closed in the late 90s, rather than spending the money to have several feet of ground from the old plant dug up and replaced, the city opted to instead cover it in concrete, with a clay seal 6 feet deep that seals up the irradiated soil like a burrito (3). As of early 2020, much of the site is under renovation, but what existed before and what will exist after the projects completion are sites for tourism- concerts, outdoor recreation, all right around that slab of concrete.
Real investigation into ASARCO’s impact on the air and water cleanliness of Omaha and surrounding areas dates back to the early 70s with the rise of environmentalism. One lawsuit in 1974 saw officials representing the Secretary of Labor finding lead in unsafe amounts in five of the seven areas of Omaha they tested- that being just based on airborne lead (Klein). A few years later in 1985 the Omaha World Herald recorded plant employees with blood levels 5 times the level that the CDC flags as “unsafe” (5, 2).
Just in 2012 Aaron Ferer and Sons (number 8 on that list of the 8 major polluters), a scrap metals processor that was involved with ASARCO from 1954 to 1963, was ordered to pay half a million dollars to the state of Nebraska for cleanup (1). ASARCO similarly paid a due of 3.6 million dollars to the EPA in 1996 before they were even shut down (6). In comparison to the 403.9 tons of emissions that ASARCO released in just the last ten years of it’s tenure, this understandably pales in comparison (6).
And as for everything else in the eastern half of the city, the Omaha site published an article in 2018 reporting that while cleanup wasn’t totally done (see the residential areas with near-400ppm lead in the soil on Omaha Lead Registry), the city and many of the owners of the land in question are fine with leaving lead in the soil despite the recommendations (4). While 400 parts per million or less might not be enough to significantly harm the people walking on top of it- nothing like those who work with something like lead-contaminated construction materials- there is no blood level of lead that is considered safe for children (2).
Under construction as of early 2020 is a new, $300 million dollar complex, backed by private donors. KETV reported that despite an agreement made by the City of Omaha when the land was transferred to them with the closure of ASARCO, the plan currently is to plant trees in the ground for the children’s playground- possibly puncturing through the clay seal 6 feet deep and exposing the irradiated soil to the park and it’s parkgoers (3).
In other words, the cleanup has gone well in the eyes of many. The site looks beautiful enough to be home to the new Riverfront, which promises “improv[ed] river access and building amenities such as... an urban beach, sports courts, food truck pavilion and marina” as well as the children’s park.
But even now it’s a really pretty place. If you stand on the Bob Kerrey Bridge and face north, and imagine yourself flying in an arc directly forward a few miles, you’ll have skipped over Carter Lake and ended up back on the Riverfront, where Aaron Ferer and Sons used to be. It’s a different company now, but still the same trucks and industrial buildings stand in the view of the river. Only one road coils up between the old building and the reedy overgrowth that marks the edge of the river. These vantage points are perhaps the most poignant we have of the legacy that Omaha's highly industrialized past will have on it's future.