IT’S CLEAR that people and lead don’t mix. Like many things in modern life – coal, for example – lead offers certain benefits (mainly to automobiles), but it would be better if no one lived or worked within a half mile of a lead smelting plant. It especially would be better if no small children were exposed to the contaminated soil that builds up around these installations.
But, unhappily, that is not the case in this city. There are houses, schools, day-care centers, a Boys Club facility and a Dallas Housing Authority project all located in the shadow of RSR Corp. in West Dallas and Dixie Metals Co. in Oak Cliff. A year and a half ago, there was considerable alarm about possible lead toxicity in preschool children who live or play near these plants. Since acute lead toxicity can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in children, the City Council launched a screening program to identify children who had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Those tests proved inconclusive, so the city turned to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and asked them to conduct a more extensive study.
Now the EPA/CDC results are in, and the response has been dramatic: the Boys Club has closed its West Dallas operation . . . Texas Attorney General Jim Mat-tox has filed suit against RSR Corp., and the City of Dallas has joined that litigation . . . RSR has filed a countersuit to stop enforcement action by the city or the state.
By the time you read this issue of D, a major cleanup effort to remove and replace polluted soil near RSR and Dixie Metals should have been undertaken by the city staff. It won’t be the first time that soil has been replaced near RSR. After the 1981 lead scare, the Boys Club, assisted by RSR, hauled off a layer of contaminated earth more than 6 inches deep and then re-sodded part of the area. Now, inexplicably, city health records show that lead levels in the new topsoil nearly doubled between April and December of last year.
EPA TURNED ITS BACK ON LEAD PROBLEM
During 1981, RSR offered to help replace lead-contaminated soil in other affected areas near the plant, but the EPA’s national administrator, John Hernandez, set aside the plan, saying that a cleanup wasn’t necessary. It’s not clear why he objected to RSR’s plans for the soil replacement program in West Dallas, but reportedly Hernandez said that the case there wasn’t based on “good science.” Hernandez recently resigned his EPA post along with director Anne Burford and others involved in the Superfund flap.
Just how dangerous are the lead levels surrounding the RSR plant? According to the EPA/CDC report, 14 of the 248 children tested had lead toxicity as defined by CDC-a mathematical, not a medical, definition. Significantly, the report stated, “There is no evidence of absorption of lead to the degree usually associated with clinical symptoms of lead poisoning, and the reported blood levels are not high enough to make this likely.”
The statistical sample suggests that 29 of the 510 preschool children living near RSR have lead toxicity and should be monitored by doctors. The EPA/CDC report concludes that all children living within a half mile of RSR and Dixie Metals should be screened for lead levels in the blood every six months. Screenings are already being conducted at Southwestern Medical School, which operates three children’s clinics with almost 6,000 patients in West Dallas. It may be that the medical school can offer valuable assistance to the city staff in managing the lead problem.
As for soil replacement, the report has some exquisite bureaucratic double talk on this point, saying that soil lead levels “may not be a major pathway of concern,” but then again they “cannot be ignored as a contributing exposure pathway.”
HIP-SHOOTING FROM COUNCIL DOESN’T HELP
What is there to do but to start digging up the dirt and hope that it helps? With or without the EPA, City Hall has no choice but to act, even if that action has less than a 100 percent chance of success. The council also is considering an ordinance that would set local standards for lead emissions once a scientific basis for those standards can be determined, which isn’t easy – automobiles spew lead also, and that affects the surrounding soil.
Meanwhile, the city staff deserves more support on this issue and less abuse than it has received from some council members. Assistant City Manager Richard Knight and Health and Human Services Director Callie Struggs, both relatively new to the staff, have done a creditable job of handling a tough situation. Dallas is experiencing a new brand of federalism and can’t expect much help from Washington or even the Texas Air Control Board, which has demonstrated a decade of indifference. Mayor Starke Taylor has taken a strong stand on this issue; let’s hope that with his guidance, the council and staff can work to find a way out of this mess.
DALLAS IS ALREADY MISSING MORRIS HITE
The lead controversy, the Arts District, Town Lake – all the challenges facing Dallas at the moment cry out for talent like that of Morris Hite, longtime civic leader who was killed in an automobile accident May 1 as he drove to the Byron Nelson Golf Tournament, a major fund-raising event of the Salesmanship Club. Hite was president of the Salesmanship Club at the time of his death. Leadership was nothing new to him. Hite had been heading up things in Dallas for more than 20 years, and he didn’t stop just because he was 72.
To see Morris Hite’s achievements, you,have only to look at the Concert Hall or D/FW airport (he headed the bond election for both) or, above all, at the Salesmanship Club camps for troubled youths.And as an unwitting but appropriatetribute to Morris Hite, this year’s ByronNelson broke all records.