Residents near the Tooele County town of Pine Canyon may have been exposed to poisoned soil from a defunct lead smelter that once operated within two miles of their homes.
The Utah Department of Health on Thursday issued a report that found there is soil contaminated with lead in areas around the old International Smelting and Refining site, located about 2.5 miles northeast of Tooele city.
Those findings probably come as no surprise to residents who have lived near the smelter, which operated until 1972. But newcomers may find it alarming. The population of Pine Canyon, formerly known as Lincoln, has doubled in the last decade to 482 people who live within two miles west of the site, near the mouth of Pine Canyon.
In 1986, the International Smelting and Refining Co. covered the mill tailings pile and fenced it off after 60 years of lead smelting. Now 14 years later, the toxic pollution in the soils, and potentially the groundwater, has been determined to be dangerously high.
"We don't know the extent of how many people may have actually ingested. It may be nothing. But we do know contamination is there and people are potentiality at risk from the lead exposure," said Wayne Ball, toxicologist with the Department of Health.
"The only way to determine a person is at risk is to receive a blood lead test," he added.
Meanwhile, the area will be cleaned up.
It has now been declared a federal Superfund site, and Thursday it will be officially added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's national list of cleanup priorities.
The listing makes the 1,200-acre site eligible for federal funding for further investigation and then cleanup.
The Department of Health's investigation found an area around the site to be heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals that have tainted the soils and possibly the groundwater that could threaten nearby municipal drinking water wells.
"There is the possibility the groundwater could be contaminated," Ball said. "But most residents aren't getting their drinking water from wells. If so, they should have their well water tested."
The poisons are a particular danger to the health of children because they tend to play in the dirt. If ingested, it could cause brain damage or kidney failure and affect the immune system.
Health officials are finalizing their report and will seek public comment on it through Aug. 30. A public meeting will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 3 in the Tooele County Health Department, 151 N. Main St.
The report highlights recommendations on ways to reduce exposure.
Although there have been no reports of any illness, precautions need to be taken, Bell said.
For instance, residents who have gardens should wash all their vegetables. Residents should try to make sure their homes are as dust-free as possible.
Children should have their blood tested for lead. Residents in Pine Canyon and the Carr Fork subdivision in eastern Tooele city will receive free blood lead tests through the Tooele County Health Department.
"Most likely we're talking about slightly elevated amounts, not life-threatening," Bell said. But there are long-term effects with the exposure among children, he added. It can cause attention deficit disorder and other mental problems.
In the event of positive tests, the health department will investigate the source. The source of exposure could be from lead-based paint in the home.
Other precautions include replacing the barbed wire fence that surrounds the tailings pile on the site with a more secure chain-link fence. It also means removing the tailings from the drainages of Dry Creek and Pine Creek.
"Right now we're continuing to evaluate the off-site contamination," Ball said.