Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family, but Sandra Levario is worried her grandchildren will stray into what seems like a lovely backyard filled with wind chimes and gnomes.
Levario lives across the street from the former city-run indoor Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range in Sacramento. Like 13 of her neighbors, lead-tainted soil above levels considered safe for kids is all over her yard.
Following a devastating Bee article that chronicled how the city ignored warning signs about lead hazards at the gun range for years, the city pledged to clean up contamination. At first, the city kept its promise. Contaminated soil was removed from the leafy park surrounding the range.
But in cleaning up homes, the city has engaged in delay after delay. Now officials have employed a new tactic with a dubious assertion – it’s not their fault.
When regulators from Sacramento County Environmental Management ordered the city in September to get on with the cleanup, the city launched a study that has cost at least $17,000 and that reinforced a theory that city Parks Director Christopher Conlin has suggested privately in emails since the range controversy erupted. The real culprit is lead from small planes approaching nearby Sacramento Executive Airport.
There is a grain of truth: smaller planes still use a kind of fuel that contains a small amount of lead called avgas.
In an Oct. 30 letter to Sacramento County, Conlin said the city “cannot agree to undertake remediation when it is not the party responsible for the contamination.”
But a Center for Environmental Health expert on avgas told me that the study conclusion is misguided: “Avgas shouldn’t be used as an excuse to defer work that needs to be done.”
In a terse Nov. 14 response, the county said the study lacked basic scientific data required in California when conducting an “endangerment assessment.” The county has ordered the city to “document the relevant sampling and analysis protocols methods for data evaluation” by Dec. 15.
There’s a simpler solution.
If the city really wants to know the source for the lead, there’s a world-class resource down the road at UC Davis that can provide definitive answers at a fraction of the cost. Researcher Peter Green runs a lab with a high-tech spectrometer that can distinguish between lead from a gun range and from avgas.
Green said as long as the lab’s costs are covered, he would be happy to look at lead samples from Mangan Park homes, but is pretty sure what he will find. “The lead levels inside that gun range were truly horrible,” he said. “When you have a known emitter so close, common sense would tell you where the lead likely comes from. I expect that we could trace 80 to 90 percent to the range. But I could be surprised.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg should take Green up on his offer and tell city officials to stop the games and begin a thorough cleanup. Hard-working families such as the Levarios deserve better than to be plagued with worries about lead harming their kids.
Joe Rubin is a Sacramento-based investigative reporter and USC Annenberg Data Reporting fellow covering public health issues related to lead. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.