More than 7,100 yards and public spaces have been cleaned up and 581 roadway segments recently paved at the Bunker Hill site, work that an EPA spokesperson described as “dramatically reducing people’s exposure to lead and other metals.” But other goals remain unmet. And at least two of them — the cleanup threshold for soil and the children’s blood levels noted in the site’s “remedial action objective” — are dangerously out of date. In 2012, the CDC lowered the blood lead “level of concern” nationally from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. But the Bunker Hill site has yet to update its objectives to meet those standards. Instead, the EPA’s official “remedial action objective” for the site, which was created in 1991, requires that less than 5 percent of children tested for lead have blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter without specifying how many children overall should be tested.
The National Academy of Sciences committee recommended universal blood lead screening of children between ages 1 and 4 on the Bunker Hill site. But that hasn’t happened. While there is no question that children’s blood lead levels have steadily fallen in the area since the worst of the pollution crisis, lead exposure persists and some children are still falling through the cracks.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, only 169 children under 6 living within the bounds of the original site had their blood tested for lead, according to the Panhandle Health District. Eighty-two of these children were found to have lead in their blood; 23 of them had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter — the current level of concern identified by the CDC. Eight children had blood levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter. And two had levels above 20, a level at which children begin to experience irritability and loss of appetite.
Lasting neurological damage can occur at levels well below the 5 micrograms per deciliter set by the CDC or even the 10 micrograms per deciliter used in Bunker Hill. An increase in children’s blood lead level from less than 1 to 10 micrograms per deciliter was associated with a 6-point drop in IQ score, according to a 2005 study in Environmental Health Perspectives. But it’s impossible to know how many children living on the Bunker Hill site are exposed or had lasting neurological damage because some aren’t tested.
In 2016, 2017, and 2018, fewer than 150 children in the center of the site had their blood tested for lead each year. Among those who were tested, a significant minority had blood levels above the current safety threshold. The 125 children under 6 tested in the box in 2017 likely represented about half of the children in the area, said Andy Helkey, Kellogg Remediation Program Manager at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Helkey said that the blood testing results showed that Bunker Hill technically met the EPA’s objective for the site of having less than 5 percent of children with blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter. But he acknowledged that some individual communities within the Superfund site didn’t meet that almost 30-year-old goal. And many children in the area still haven’t been tested.
Though the EPA and companies responsible for the pollution in Bunker Hill have already spent more than $1 billion cleaning up the site, the health department lacks the money to determine how many children live in the epicenter of the Superfund site and to test them, Helkey said.
Meanwhile, the level of lead that triggers remediation at the Superfund site — 1,000 parts per million, which was set in 1991 — is more than twice the level that the EPA set for residential soil in the rest of the country: 400 ppm. So when local health officials found lead present at 401 parts per million on the decking of the playground at the Canyonside complex, they weren’t legally bound to remove it. Asked about the discrepancy, an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency “is considering various options to accelerate protective and efficient Superfund residential lead cleanups.” The spokesperson also acknowledged that individual sites may have different cleanup levels for lead that depend on “site-specific conditions, such as the degree to which lead is bioavailable.”
There’s little question that many people living on Bunker Hill are suffering from lead exposure. “Pretty much everyone I talked to in a long-term family had long-term health problems,” said Sue Moodie, an epidemiologist and health researcher who spent several months interviewing residents in 2008 and 2009. “There were a lot of reports of children getting really frustrated in school and having behavioral problems and breaking things.”
For Kimball, the revelations about the likely sources of the lead in his son’s blood haven’t helped him prevent further exposure. After he received the test results from the health department, Kimball said he asked the building management to address the problem, but no action was taken. “I talked to everyone I could possibly talk to, but nobody seemed to want to do anything,” said Kimball, who keeps a thick file of his letters seeking help about lead.
The local health department was also of little help. Valerie Wade, an environmental health specialist with the agency, suggested that Canyonside Townhouses install additional play areas on site so that the children in the apartments would be less likely to go to the highly contaminated lot across the street, according to a health district spokesperson, who said that “the apartment complex said they did not have funding to do so.”
Wade explained the situation this way to Kimball in an August 2019 email: “Unfortunately, we cannot force them to do anything,” she wrote, going on to encourage Kimball to “steer clear of the contaminated areas and get inventive with things to do with” your son.
A few days after sending Kimball the lead test results, the health department did hold a pizza party at Canyonside at which Wade spoke about the dangers of lead and encouraged children to wash their hands. In an email, a spokesperson wrote that the health department also works to protect children from lead by providing blood lead screening; bodysuits, respirators and other protective equipment to people exposed to lead dust; and free disposal sites for contaminated material. Syringa Property Management, which manages the Canyonside and Amy Lyn apartments, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While the local health department didn’t substantively address the immediate lead threat facing Steve Kimball at Canyonside, federal agencies were aware that something could and should be done to address the environmental risks facing residents of subsidized housing on Bunker Hill. At a November 2017 meeting between HUD and EPA officials, Bunker Hill was one of the first sites mentioned, with at least one meeting attendee noting that human exposure was not under control at the site. At the meeting, the agency staffers spoke hopefully about future conversations about Bunker Hill and their plans to share maps and other information with other agencies.
But three years later, the lead contamination persists. Kimball is still waiting for help, and his son, now 4 years old, still hasn’t begun to speak.
While the area seems to have faded from the EPA’s attention, Kimball thinks about the pollution he and his son must confront every day. “It pops into my head every time I go outside,” he said.
A Legacy of Activism
On a recent afternoon, a team of scientists and environmental activists met around the corner from the Collegeville Center in North Birmingham to hang air monitors that will gather independent evidence about what exactly residents are still being exposed to.
GASP, the local environmental justice organization spearheading the effort, already conducted one round of testing, in 2020, that found concentrations of naphthalene, a carcinogen produced in coal and petroleum processing, at up to 50 times the EPA’s cancer risk level. They also found concentrations of benzene, another known carcinogen, up to 29 times the EPA’s cancer risk level.
The group plans to use the data from air monitoring to continue pressing the EPA to place the 35th Avenue Superfund site on the National Priorities List, which would bring additional funds for testing and cleanup.
GASP’s attorney Colson Lewis said the group is motivated in large part by the children always playing outside at the public housing complexes oblivious to the risks they’re being exposed to. “It just makes you want to keep advocating for what’s best for everyone’s health,” she said, “especially the children who can’t do it for themselves.”
There’s a rich history of activism in the area. The Collegeville housing complex sits just down the block from the famed Bethel Baptist Church, where Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the longtime pastor.
There’s a plaque hanging on an overpass at the Collegeville Center commemorating the area as the cradle of the civil rights movement. The plaque is next to a drainage ditch, out of sight. Some advocates say it’s emblematic of how this community has been treated over the years and that more activism is needed.
Cammack’s grandfather followed in a long tradition of men before him who, despite the power of the community, faced continued obstacles. After he worked for years in a local quarry, his health began to fail. He was compensated, and the family used the money as a down payment on a house. While home ownership became a point of pride for the family, Cammack said, “he paid with his life.”
So she’s taking extra precautions to protect her daughter. Cammack takes her to play at a park farther from their apartment complex, but the smoke plumes and foul smell tend to migrate, and she often cuts the trips short.
“It’s alarming,” Cammack said. “You can see it and smell it, but it’s hard to know how it affects you.”
Local environmental activists continue to push for federal oversight through the Superfund program, which would bring more money to repair the community. And they’re optimistic that incoming leaders at the EPA and HUD will make oversight a priority.
How much of a priority remains to be seen. “Everything is a balancing act,” Goldfarb, the retired HUD official, said. With resources scarce and the federal deficit growing, he said, “The question is what are we going to spend money on?”
Will Craft contributed reporting and data analysis for this story.
Support for this project was provided by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism.