Mayor Dick Moore says demolition of buildings along Prairie Street “is not creating any environmental concerns or issues.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe the clouds of lead paint that rose from the old, decrepit structures never reached the rest of the neighborhood.
But then again, maybe they did. We won’t know until we go back and test the area for lead.
The city started tearing down 14 buildings along Prairie Street in late May, clearing the way for a new railroad overpass between Main and Middlebury. Some of the structures contained asbestos, which contractors removed before bringing in the backhoes.
Many other buildings contained lead paint. Federal and state guidelines don’t specifically address lead removal on demolition sites, so contractors ripped down the buildings and sprayed them with hoses to hold down the dust.
It didn’t work. Not well, anyway. In a video on “Indiana Buzz,” a blog by Elkhart Truth reporter Tim Vandenack, you can see dust blowing away from a two-story home as contractors turn it into a pile of shredded wheat.
Contractors told the city Monday, June 2, that they were kicking up more dust than anticipated and asked to use water from a city fire hydrant to wet down the worksites. But two days later, Jason Moreno, an organizer for LaCasa Inc. spoke to Moore on behalf of neighborhood residents worried about dust.
“They were using the hose,” Moreno told Vandenack, “but you could tell it wasn’t adequate to keep the dust particles from the air.”
Moore readily agreed to allow the contractors to use more city water at no charge, telling Vandenack that he didn’t blame neighbors for their concern.
“We want to keep the dust down,” Moore said.
That didn’t entirely quell the community’s concerns. Carolyn Hunt, whose young son developed lead poisoning from living in their 1920s-era Elkhart home, called the spraying operations inadequate.
“If the demolition continues as planned, soon every porch, windowsill, front yard, mud puddle, and sandbox in that neighborhood will contain enough lead dust to poison the children in the neighborhood,” Hunt wrote in an op-ed posted Friday on elkharttruth.com. “Families will track it into the homes, and it will get on little fingers, toes, and toys. I have been through this. I don't wish it on anyone.”
That same day, Moore’s office issued his statement that demolition posed no environmental dangers to the Prairie Street neighborhood.
"While lead-based paint is a health concern in remodeling and renovations, the federal and state agencies apparently feel that the wetting procedure addresses the issue with lead paint in residential demolitions,“ Moore’s statement said.
In theory, yes. But by their own admission, contractors released more dust than they expected early in the process. Dust clouds floated across Prairie Street for nearly a week before the mayor asked demolition teams to use more water.
That means Hunt is probably right about the spread of lead particles — which, in turn, also means the city needs to begin testing for the presence of lead as soon as work concludes on Prairie Street.
If there is lead in south-central Elkhart homes, we need to find and remove it now, before it starts sickening people. We cannot risk a generation of children on Prairie Street growing up with learning disabilities, behavior problems and neurological issues.
Still, maybe the mayor is right. Maybe a week of dust clouds from old, demolished buildings didn't spread lead particles south of the railroad tracks on Main. Maybe, as he insists, the work isn’t “creating any environmental concerns or issues.”
But it’s impossible to know without checking.