Nearly a month after a metal-manufacturing plant exploded in the Cleveland suburb of Oakwood Village, Ohio, community health advocates say they still don’t have clear answers to the urgent question of whether the blast released harmful levels of lead into the area. They’re also questioning why those living and working near the blast weren’t quickly informed that lead in the facility could pose a risk.
Investigators are still probing what caused the Feb. 20 blast at the I. Schumann & Co. plant, which according to WKYC-TV killed a 46-year-old maintenance worker and left 13 other people hospitalized. The afternoon explosion hurled billows of black smoke and flames into the air and scattered molten debris the length of a football field. The plant remains closed as the cleanup continues.
The incident has angered people in the wider community such as Yvonka M. Hall, a public health administrator who directs the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition and leads the volunteer-based Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH). Hall said government officials “dropped the ball” by not immediately telling residents the site of the explosion contained lead and had been previously cited by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for hazardous waste and disposal violations.
Such frustration follows in the wake of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just 75 miles away. Toxic chemicals in that derailed train were later burned in a “controlled release,” prompting skepticism among residents about claims by the state and federal government that the drinking water and air were safe.
But Hall said that unlike in East Palestine, a mostly White community where outcry prompted a Senate hearing, concerns about potentially devastating lead exposure in her community, which is two-thirds Black, have been largely shrugged off. Though East Palestine residents also struggled in the first hours and days after the derailment to have their concerns heard, Monday will mark a full month since the explosion in Oakwood Village.
During that month, none of the bulletins or news releases from local officials about the explosion have mentioned lead; a letter to residents from the Oakwood Village fire chief after the explosion said that neither the EPA nor third-party cleanup groups had notified city officials of any hazardous materials that were released. CLASH struggled to get timely answers from the Ohio EPA about whether the agency was looking for lead contamination and what the preliminary findings were, according to messages reviewed by The Washington Post. Hall, who used to work for the Cleveland Health Department, said that there are protocols for jumping to action after a disaster and that she remains critical of the Ohio EPA for not treating the Oakwood Village explosion as such.
“Do you see we have a community that is almost entirely White and got all the resources of the EPA almost immediately?” Hall said.
“I have to look at this through a racial equity lens,” she added. “If this were in East Palestine, we’d see boots on the ground and [officials] doing robocalls to the community.”
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio EPA, said in a statement that the agency takes explosions such as the one at I. Schumann seriously and will be working with an independent environmental contractor hired by the metal company, which must comply with a plan reviewed and approved by the Ohio EPA.
“It is important to emphasize that Ohio EPA has been working with contractors and the company since the day of the fire and will continue overseeing the work to ensure that necessary remediation is completed,” Lee wrote.
The fire that caused the explosion occurred in the production area of the facility where lead and cadmium are not stored, which “decreased the potential risk to the public during the fire,” Lee wrote.
Explosion at a brass and bronze plant in Oakwood.— Caitlin McCarthy (@news_caitlin) February 20, 2023
Businesses across the street tell 19 News “molton rock” came flying onto their buildings.
This rock was still smoking when I took this video. @cleveland19news pic.twitter.com/Y7DCRKx5aN
Hall argued that a major concern is whether the lack of initial action — such as an evacuation order or lead exposure warnings — may have already brought lead exposure to children, who are the most vulnerable to its damaging, lifelong effects. Hall said many local residents probably are unaware that there might be a lead risk from the explosion; lead is odorless and is visually indistinguishable from other dust and particulates on surfaces.
CLASH members who routinely analyze state and federal EPA data on local polluters and risks of lead exposure mapped more than 30 day-care centers within three miles of the explosion. No amount of lead exposure for children is safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For children under 6, lead in their bloodstream can cause brain damage.
Fears over lead contamination in Ohio stretch back decades, particularly concerns about lead paint. More than two-thirds of the state’s housing stock was built before 1980, according to the Ohio Department of Health. (Lead paint was banned from residential use nationwide in 1978.) The concerns are especially pronounced in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and Oakwood Village. According to the Cleveland Clinic, lead poisoning rates for children there are four times the national average.
“It’s a lifetime impact,” Hall said. “The lack of action could have potentially changed some young people’s lives for the rest of their lives. Lead goes from your blood to your bones as a teen, and then to your organs as a senior. And it can still do damage as grown folks.”
The Ohio EPA said air-quality monitoring the day after the blast and in the following days did not show lead levels that would risk public health.
A previous message from the Ohio EPA to CLASH reviewed by The Post stated that there was no data on air quality from the day of the explosion because the air monitor was not running that day.
On March 6, CLASH commissioned independent tests of soil samples in about a dozen sites around the plant and urged the Ohio EPA to do the same. Because lead is a heavy particulate that settles into the ground, CLASH said, soil was a better indicator than air quality of how much lead was potentially released.
Lead, which occurs naturally in soil at very low levels, is considered hazardous under EPA thresholds when it surpasses 400 parts per million in children’s play areas and at 1,200 ppm in non-play areas. Most of the samples fell below the play-area threshold, though two sites near the plant showed elevated lead levels, including one at 3,144 ppm, more than 2½ times the higher threshold.
Lee confirmed that the Ohio EPA had received and would review the results of CLASH’s independent lead soil test.
Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the federal EPA, agreed with CLASH’s assessment of testing the soil for lead, including school and playground areas — and found the community’s frustrations unsurprising.
“It is very common to struggle to get the attention of a local EPA. I often tell groups to have their state legislator or city council get involved,” said Enck, whose EPA work was focused in the eastern United States and Puerto Rico.
“Ohio EPA is known for being more lax on enforcement,” she said of the agency. “I would not expect them to be pushing hard.”
As the one-month milestone approached, CLASH took its concerns to the next level.
On Thursday, Hall and others met with federal EPA officials in Region 5, which encompasses the Great Lakes region, to discuss their frustrations with the Oakwood Village response and demand action.
Hall described a positive reaction from officials such as Matthew Tejada, deputy assistant administrator for environmental justice at the federal EPA. Tejada said the federal agency would send a letter to the day-care centers near the plant explosion, alerting them to potential hazards from the explosion and advising them to get tested, Hall said. She also pressed the EPA to provide testing resources and soil analysis.
After the Thursday meeting, Hall reflected on what it had taken to get attention for the Oakwood Village community: CLASH had advocates volunteering their time and money to make calls, send letters and pay for their own third-party testing. They also had Hall’s public health connections and expertise, and members who understand the health risks of lead.
“Luckily, we knew where to go on the ladder, but that we had to climb all these rungs just to get here is ridiculous,” Hall said, adding that she couldn’t help but think of other communities that will face the same ascent and not even know where to find the ladder.