• Article Image Alt Text
    A steering committee advocating construction of a new elementary school in Iola has identified this land north and east of the intersection of Kentucky and Monroe streets as an ideal site. The land must be tested and cleared before work could begin.
  • Article Image Alt Text
    A proposed site for a new elementary school lies not far from the old zinc smelting plants in East Iola, such as this one. The smelters were in operation in the early years of the 20th century, leaving lead-tainted soil throughout town. EPA PHOTO

District seeks answers on school site

The Iola Register

Think of soil remediation at the proposed elementary site as a five-pronged approach, says USD 257 Board of Education president Dan Willis.

The process involves SJCF Architects, a firm working for the school district; the Kansas Department of Health and Environment; the Environmental Protection Agency; their soil remediation contractor in Iola, Veterans Worldwide; and the soil testing company Terracon Environmental Services.

“They’re all in communication and they’re all trying to bulldoze the roadblocks of bureaucracy,” Willis explained.

That’s just part of the complex answer to the Ask the Register question from I.B. Woodward, a former Iolan who now lives in Wichita: “How close would the new school be to the old stockyards and foundry? Is this land environmentally safe?”

The school district has designated land near Kentucky and Monroe streets as the site for a new elementary school. The $25.5 million bond issue will go to voters April 2 for that school along with options to build a new science and technology building at the high school for $7 million and new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at the middle school for $2.8 million.

The proposed elementary school site is at the intersection of Kentucky and Monroe streets in Iola.


Many have expressed concerns about the safety of building on land that once was the home of an iron works foundry and zinc smelting operation. 

But soil remediation is not a new subject to Iolans, or even to USD 257. 

About 400 properties already have undergone soil remediation in recent years, with a list of about 971 or so still to go, as part of the EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment project.

EPA spokesperson Benjamin Washburn told the Register cleanup is expected to begin this spring for residential properties with high lead and arsenic concentrations. Cleanup involves removing contaminated soil, backfilling with new soil and reestablishing the lawn.

The process is expected to take about four years. The first soil remediation took place in 2006.

Previous cleanup efforts included McKinley and Lincoln elementary school properties and the Iola Middle School practice fields in 2013. More work was found at McKinley as well as the property for the Crossroads school, the maintenance shop and at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. 

“This is a process Iolans have become accustomed to watching,” Willis said. 


THE EPA has not yet tested the site at Kentucky and Monroe for contamination. Plans currently call for testing after residential cleanup is completed, likely to begin in the summer of 2021.

But if the school bond passes, the EPA could change its plans, Washburn said. That could include investigating and possibly remediating parts of the site earlier.

“At this time the EPA cannot determine when the school property would be characterized or remediated, but EPA will continue to work with the City as plans become more defined,” Washburn wrote in an email to The Register last week.

The school district continues to talk to EPA and KDHE officials to see what sort of assistance they can provide to clean up the property, Willis said. 

“It appears that EPA will perform the work, but we will need to seek collaboration to get timeline adjustments,” Willis said. 

But if that help isn’t available, the district has other options.

Land to the east of the proposed site was studied in 2011 as county officials considered building a new hospital at the east entrance of town. That data revealed about 1.5 acres of the 15-acre site had contamination up to a foot deep. A smaller area of the proposed hospital site, about 4,753 square feet, could have contamination up to three feet deep. 

The bond issue includes $80,000 to $180,000 to pay for remediation costs, if necessary.

If the bond issue passes and the district finalizes exactly where it wants to put the school, Terracon will conduct additional, deeper borings.

A proposed site for a new elementary school lies not far from the old zinc smelting plants in East Iola, such as this one. The smelters were in operation in the early years of the 20th century, leaving lead-tainted soil throughout town. EPA PHOTO


YOU HAVE to go back more than 100 years to fully understand the current situation, local history buff Larry Manes of Moran says.

It all began in 1883, when an iron foundry started the first major industry in Iola on the south side of Lincoln Street west of State Street. In 1896, the foundry moved to property on the northeast corner of what is now Kentucky and U.S. 54 highway. The first zinc smelter came to town that same year and took over the property that had been the foundry’s first location.

The iron foundry made mostly agricultural products at first, then pump housings. An office building was located on the southern part of the property with a smelter to the north.

The foundry operated until the early 1980s. They sold the furnace and casting equipment, though a concrete base remains on the northern part of the property. A huge mound of sand and fine grain cinders was buried nearby. 

The office and storage areas were sold to M&W Manufacturing, which remains.


THE STORY of Iola’s industrial era is a story about the gas boom at the turn of the century, a brief period of optimism that ballooned Allen County’s population to 30,000 and brought numerous smelters, cement companies, brick manufacturers and others to the area.

A 1907 edition of The Iola Daily Register brags of 4,000 men working at Iola’s industrial plants, with about 700 working at zinc smelting companies and claims the Lanyon Zinc Company was “probably the largest smelter operated in the United States.”

“It is to the future that we turn, full of hope and ambition to build an even greater city,” The Register wrote in 1907.

The Lanyon Company built two zinc smelters on the west side of Iola, then added a third, Lanyon No. 3, just to the east of the iron foundry around 1900. A railroad spur ran between the foundry and the smelter. The location is approximately the site of a physician’s office along the highway. 

The smelter operated until about 1910, when the gas ran out. 

“The gas everybody thought would last forever turned out to be a fairly small pocket as gas fields go,” Manes said.

The Lanyon company soon went bankrupt, packed up its smelting equipment and moved to Tulsa where it could use oil as a heat source, Manes said.

Though the equipment moved, what was left behind were the foundations, a pile of “slag” (a waste by-product), along with pools of sulfuric acid waste and lead. The zinc used by Lanyon wasn’t pure zinc, Manes said. It included lead that was smelted out of the zinc and dumped along with the slag. 

In the 1950s, Iola Industries formed and leveled the area of slag. Their efforts made the area more visually appealing, but they didn’t know the health hazards hidden in the material.

“It was a vast improvement but really that whole area out there now has varying degrees of contamination,” Manes said.

The slag also was used throughout the city as a base for sidewalks and driveways, which led to the large number of sites now on the EPA’s list for soil remediation.


VOTING FOR the next Ask The Register question runs through midnight tonight.

This week’s questions:

— How do our grade schools rank in academics, sports, interpersonal skills, and special needs instruction?  — Jerry Watson, Iola

— Do you have any info on Carl M. Carson, retired navy chief petty officer, born about 1925. WWII vet. — Sam Eads, Wetumpka, AL

— For towns like Iola that built a new school, what was the economic impact? Did the population decline slow? — R. Hale, Iola

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