Darn near done diggin’

This is the last year for soil remediation projects, currently underway by Veterans Worldwide. By the time they're finished, more than 1,000 residential properties will have had their tainted soil replaced since 2019 under a $24 million contract.

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January 21, 2022 - 4:01 PM

The end is in sight for a yearslong soil cleanup effort in Iola.

Workers from Veterans Worldwide are expected to finish the 300 or so remaining properties containing  lead-tainted soil by the end of 2022.

Lester Johnson, owner of Veterans Worldwide, the company charged with the cleanup, said the work may extend past the scheduled finish in September, but will be done by the end of the year.

An extraordinarily wet first half of 2021, coupled with workforce shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed work a bit, Johnson noted.

However, crews have largely been able to work through the winter on vacant land through the winter months.

As per the company’s contract, residential property cleanup won’t resume until March, Johnson noted.

For the past several weeks, work has been centered on land adjoining the Prairie Spirit Trail south of U.S. 54 and north of Riverside Park.

By the time Veterans Worldwide is finished, more than 1,000 residential properties will have had their soil replaced with “clean” dirt since 2019 via the four-year, $24 million contract.

The decontamination process involves extracting the contaminated soil, then covering the area with the clean topsoil. The company then covers the area with sod and waters it for four months so the new grass takes root. 

Some of the cleanup jobs are easy, requiring removal of only one foot below the surface to remove the contaminated soil. Others are a bit more complicated, and require deeper excavations, or have utilities in the tainted dirt. 

Crews with Veterans Worldwide dig soil near the Prairie Spirit Trail south of U.S. 54 and north of Riverside Park. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Iola was the home of several zinc and lead smelting plants in the early 1900s, at the height of the local gas boom.

The United Zinc and East Iola smelters were on the east edge of town — just west of Jump Start Travel Center — while the Lanyon Smelter was on the west side of town on land that eventually became the IMP Boats plant.

The smelters shut down about 20 years later because the local natural gas supply had been depleted, but not before depositing lead-filled pollutants throughout Iola.

The lead tailings wafted in every direction, contaminating nearby properties. In addition, large slag piles near the smelters were popular among townsfolk as a cheap source of fill material. 

THE Environmental Protection Agency got involved in 2005, with a preliminary study of properties near the old smelter sites.

Of those, 129, including the McKinley Elementary School property, were found to have unsafe lead levels, more than 800 parts per million.

The tainted soil was excavated, replaced with “clean” dirt, and resodded.

However, the $2 million project ran out of money, with EPA officials certain additional properties were contaminated.

Iola was placed on the EPA’s “Superfund” list, clearing the way for federal funding to pay for the rest of the town’s cleanup. They eventually found more than 1,000 properties with more than 400 parts per million.

The process is paid for by the EPA’s Superfund. A Superfund is a federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of toxic wastes. The program is used when the EPA can not track down the company that created and left the toxic waste.

Considering the EPA wasn’t formed until 1970 and smelting plants left town in the 1920s, finding the responsible party was impossible, which is why the Superfund exists. This program was created in 1980.

CHILDREN ARE most susceptible to lead poisoning, from direct exposure to tainted soil or by ingesting dust from lead paint in older homes.

Lead poisoning can lead to a host of issues affecting the central nervous system, behavioral disorders and learning disabilities, health experts have said.

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