Homeowners anxious after Sacramento finds elevated lead levels in their yards

Residents in the Mangan Park neighborhood of Sacramento express concerns after the city determined that some yards had high enough levels of lead to pose health risks over a long period of time, particularly to children.
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Residents in the Mangan Park neighborhood of Sacramento express concerns after the city determined that some yards had high enough levels of lead to pose health risks over a long period of time, particularly to children.

City Beat

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City Beat

Sacramento refuses to clean lead-tainted lawns near gun range, says airport is to blame

By Ryan Lillis


December 03, 2017 03:55 AM

The city of Sacramento is refusing to remove lead-contaminated soil from residential yards near a shuttered city gun range, blaming high levels of lead instead on small-engine airplanes landing and taking off from nearby Sacramento Executive Airport.

In separate letters to Mangan Park residents and the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department, city officials said leaded fuel used by aircraft was the likely cause of elevated lead levels found outside 15 homes near the James G. Mangan Rifle and Pistol range. The airport, which borders working-class neighborhoods south of Fruitridge Road, was listed among the highest emitters of lead of any airport in the nation in a 2008 report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The city’s claims run afoul of the county’s environmental watchdog, which has led the cleanup response since The Sacramento Bee reported that high levels of lead were found inside and outside the range last year. The county has ordered the city to develop a plan for cleaning lawns near the toxic gun range where a ventilation system sent unfiltered air into the environment.

Sacramento County officials said in a statement to The Bee that the city has provided no scientific evidence directly linking the airport to the elevated lead levels discovered in the neighborhood and threatened “enforcement action against the city regarding the hazardous waste lead release at James Mangan Park.” The county operates the airport.

The city closed the range in December 2014 after years of tests showed high levels of lead dust inside the building. Lead contamination is considered a common risk in enclosed firing ranges, a byproduct of toxic vapor and dust generated by firing ammunition.

The city did not notify neighbors of the closure or of the toxic levels of lead dust found inside.

Subsequent tests found toxic hot spots on the building’s roof and areas immediately surrounding the range, and the city has since removed the contaminated soil and sealed the building. County environmental officials ordered the city to test neighborhood lawns for lead last year, using air models to determine which homes were most at risk of being exposed to dust blown from the gun range.

Now, more than a year after those tests found high lead levels in some neighborhood yards, the city and county are in a dispute over who’s to blame.

In its statement to The Bee, the county Environmental Management Department said “the city does not have the authority to determine that the city is not responsible for removing the contaminated soil in the Mangan Park neighborhood yards.”

“The issue remains unresolved as to whether the hazardous waste lead release from the City’s James Mangan Park Rifle and Pistol Range contributed to the lead contamination in the Mangan Park neighborhood yards,” the county’s environmental agency said in its statement to The Bee, adding county and state environmental officials are in an “ongoing investigation.”

The dispute also centers around money.

The city estimated it would cost $350,000 to remove enough contaminated soil from the 15 yards to bring the average lead readings below hazard levels. City parks director Chris Conlin said the county’s proposed plan for soil removal, however, would involve removing every portion of the yards with elevated lead readings and would likely cost between $700,000 and $1 million.

The city has already spent $532,817 on cleaning up the range and the area surrounding the building.

City officials have suspected for months that the range was not behind the spiked lead readings found in the adjacent neighborhood. A sidewalk across the street from the range had lead levels far below state hazard levels, and soil in a nearby picnic area, playground and pool area was also clean. Elevated lead levels were found in a random pattern among the neighborhood homes, with some of the lowest readings in yards closest to the range and some of the highest farther away from the building.

Conlin said the city has taken care of the most contaminated soil close to the range, but should not be responsible for anything more.

“We did that because that was the responsible thing to do, it’s what we should have been doing and and we took care of all that,” he said. “But going out into the neighborhood to remediate when (the gun range) is not what’s causing (lead contamination) – and we’ve got proof that it’s not – that would be irresponsible. That’s just not the right thing to do.”

The disagreement may be headed toward mediation: city officials told the county in an Oct. 9 letter they “would be willing to submit this matter to a neutral party,” such as an administrative law judge, “if EMD is unwilling to withdraw its order” for the yards to be cleaned.

In that Oct. 9 letter, the city cited a 2008 report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that estimated small aircraft taking off and landing at Sacramento Executive Airport emit 278 kilograms – or 0.3 tons – of lead per year, placing it among the top 6 percent of airports in the nation. Small planes at the facility were responsible for more lead emissions than similar aircraft at Sacramento International Airport, as well as the international airports in Cleveland, Nashville and Indianapolis, according to the EPA study.

Small-engine planes like the models that fly in and out of Sacramento Executive Airport rely on leaded fuel to boost octane and engine performance. While leaded fuel was banned in automobiles years ago, it has not been banned in aviation fuel. Leaded fuel is not used by commercial or military aircraft, according to the EPA report.

A report by the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health identified Sacramento Executive Airport as one of 23 airports in the state that emits high levels of lead. The center also lists the Mangan Park neighborhood as one of the areas “potentially exposed” to lead emissions from the airport, along with parts of Hollywood Park and South Land Park.

In its letter to residents, the city said lead-based paint used on homes in older neighborhoods such as Mangan Park also may have caused the high lead readings. Paint chips containing lead were found in some yards, according to the letter.

To further prove its case that the range did not cause the pollution in the neighborhood, the city tested the yards of 27 homes in a different part of the Mangan Park neighborhood for lead. The city acknowledged it took fewer samples from those yards than it did when testing homes close to the gun range but said it used the methodology approved by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control for testing homes near the toxic Exide battery-recycling plant near Los Angeles.

In its statement to The Bee, the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department said the city has not provided the agency with a work plan for testing the second set of yards farther away from the range. City officials said they intend to submit details for the work they’ve already completed by Dec. 15.

The city’s tests of the 27 homes a few blocks from the range found elevated lead levels outside 12 homes, according to sampling results provided to the city by environmental consultant Stantec. Homes with high lead levels were in a random pattern within the tested area – similar to the pattern found near the range – suggesting the same factors led to the contamination in both sections of the neighborhood, Conlin said.

Neighborhood residents are wary of the city’s claims.

Irene Achondo has lived on Dana Way, less than 200 feet from the gun range, for 55 years. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all played in her yard.

The tests conducted by the city last year discovered lead levels in her yard far above the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control screening level for homes, meaning lead in the soil was at levels that could be harmful to children after long-term exposure.

Achondo said she’s “trying to believe (the gun range) is not as dangerous as it is.” She remembers the neighborhood filling with jet fuel exhaust when large planes took off from the airport decades ago.

But given that she found out about the gun range’s toxic lead levels in a Sacramento Bee article last year instead of from the city, she is having a hard time trusting the city’s assessment. If there’s lead in her yard, she wants it removed.

“I’m afraid they’re not being honest with us,” she said. “To me, they’re brushing it off and letting the airport take the blame.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis