Abandoned factories and the pollutants left behind

Unsafe levels of lead contaminate soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead smelting facilities operated between the 1930s and 1960s. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. Pictured: Rusty remains at an old lead smelting mill. Photo by Simon Bowen

Dear EarthTalk: What are “ghost factories?”

Philip Walker

Hartford, Conn.


In April 2012, USA Today published a series entitled “Ghost Factories,” a report on an investigation into lead contaminated soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead factories once operated. The investigation addressed the lack of action taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test and clean up these sites despite having been warned in 2001 about the dangerous levels of lead contamination around the areas of these old facilities. 

The factories, which used a process called smelting to melt down lead, were in operation from the 1930s until the 1960s when they began to shut down. While the factories themselves may now be gone, their toxic legacy remains, as they have left behind significant amounts of poisonous lead particles in surrounding soils. The lead particles are particularly dangerous for children who live and play in these areas. “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years,” reports the Mayo Clinic, adding that even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. “Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development [and] at very high levels...can be fatal.”

Environmental scientist William Eckel warned government officials of the dangers of old lead factories in his research article “Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods,” which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in April of 2001. Eckel used EPA databases along with lead industry directories to compile a list of more than 400 possible factory sites around the country that may have been unknown or forgotten over time. In an effort to create some urgency for federal regulators, he paid to have the soil around eight of the sites tested and all but one exceeded the EPA’s hazard level for residential areas. More recent soil tests done by USA Today revealed that all 21 areas that were examined in 13 states had potentially dangerous enough lead levels that children should not be playing in that dirt. This meant, of course, that cleanups of these sites had not been done.

In response to Eckel’s findings and the USA Today series, EPA has initiated work with states to survey the majority of the sites on the 2001 list, although records for many of the affected areas are incomplete. “I am convinced we have addressed the highest-risk sites,” reports Elizabeth Southerland, director of assessment and remediation for the EPA’s Superfund program. She says her agency is open to reassessing sites that may need another look thanks to more recent information uncovered by USA Today.

Unfortunately, ongoing federal budget woes mean that resources are severely limited. In fact, the EPA lacks funds to complete even previously scheduled Superfund remediation projects. In the meantime, individual homeowners can determine whether or not they live near a former lead smelter and can apply pressure to local authorities accordingly. USA Today has posted a free online map to help people figure out exactly where the danger zones might be.


Dear EarthTalk: What are “dirty fuels” and why are they so called?

Bill Green

Seattle, Wash.


The term “dirty fuels” refers to fuels derived from tar sands, oil shale or liquid coal. Just like their more conventional fossil fuel counterparts such as petroleum and coal, they can be turned into gasoline, diesel and other energy sources that can generate extreme amounts of particulate pollution, carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction during their lifecycles from production to consumption.

“Because tar sands [have] more sulfur, nitrogen, and metals in [them] than conventional oil, upgrading and refining [them] causes a lot more air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental nonprofit. “On a lifecycle basis — that is, extraction all the way through combustion — tar sands cause about 20 percent more global warming pollution than conventional oil,” adds NRDC. “Oil shale and liquid coal are even worse, causing nearly 50 percent more global warming pollution and over double the lifecycle emissions of conventional oil...”

In North America, the majority of such fuels come from Canada’s vast boreal forest, to where tens of millions of birds flock each spring to nest. “Tar sands oil development creates open pit mines, habitat fragmentation, toxic waste holding ponds, air and water pollution, upgraders and refineries, and pipelines spreading far beyond the Boreal forest,” reports NRDC. “This development is destroying habitat for waterfowl and songbirds that come from all over the Americas to nest in the Boreal.”

Beyond impacts at the extraction sites, dirty fuels cause pollution problems all down the line. For this reason, environmental leaders are opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which, if approved and built, would transport tar sands fuels through the Midwestern U.S. to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Refinery communities like Port Arthur, Texas ... are already unable to comply with their air pollution regulations, so dirtier fuel is the last thing they need in their refineries,” adds NRDC.

And while dirty fuels may reduce our reliance on foreign oil, they won’t help reduce gas prices as they are so expensive to produce that gas prices would have to be higher than they already are in order for them to be profitable. “They also can’t help with stabilizing gas prices in the case of a disruption to oil shipments because each new tar sands project requires huge infrastructure and capital investments, so it takes years for new tar sands projects to come on-line — it’s not as though there is loads of spare tar sands oil just waiting to be put through the pipelines,” says NRDC’s Elizabeth Shope.

“The fact is, we don’t need these fuels,” she adds. “We can reduce oil consumption by increasing fuel efficiency standards, and greater use of hybrid cars, renewable energy and environmentally sustainable biofuels. What’s called ‘smart growth’ — how we design our communities — is also a very important element in meeting our transportation needs.

“North America stands at an energy crossroads [and] we now face a choice: to set a course for a more sustainable energy future of clean, renewable fuels, or to develop ever-dirtier sources of transportation fuel derived from fossil fuels — at an even greater cost to our health and environment.”

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