Toxic Terrain : Cleanup: Crews remove lead dust from back-yard smelter in Bell Gardens. The business had been operating in neighborhood since the 1950s.
The men in white protective suits, air-purifying respirators and hard hats worked methodically, cleaning up decades worth of toxic lead dust that had collected around a smelter in Fred Teurman’s back-yard workshop.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had declared the property in the 6600 block of Clara Street in Bell Gardens a threat to public health. Cleanup crews leveled the smelter building last week and began digging up hundreds of cubic yards of contaminated soil. In the process, they unearthed thousands of used hospital vials with tags identifying the contents as radioactive, said Richard Martyn, the project site manager.
Teurman’s ramshackle shop, called King Neptune Manufacturers, was a throwback to an era of fewer environmental regulations.
Teurman, 77, had been melting scrap lead, molding it, sawing it and sanding it into diving weights since the mid-1950s. No equipment had been installed to keep potentially harmful lead emissions and dust from polluting the neighborhood.
When inspectors entered the workshop earlier this year, they found lead dust more than two inches deep in places, along with lead scraps, tongs and clamps, heavy insulated gloves and hammers, records indicate.
Recent tests showed the soil in the yard and driveway of Teurman’s home is contaminated with lead up to 22 times above safety guidelines, according to EPA records. Lead contamination, in lesser amounts, also was detected in the parkway in front of the Teurman house and in the back yard of the house next door, where Teurman’s sister, Neoma J. White, used to live. Contaminated soil will be removed from the sister’s former home, where another family is living.
Of the more than 300 businesses countywide that work with lead, King Neptune posed some of the greatest risks, officials said.
“It’s a combination of lots of lead in proximity to residences,” said Dr. Paul J. Papanek, chief of the county’s Toxics Epidemiology Program. “It wasn’t a big business, but in terms of sloppy handling and being in proximity to homes, this is one of the worst.”
Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage and chronic illness, and health officials feared the lead-laced soil had blown around the Bell Gardens neighborhood of modest homes, apartments and businesses. They also were concerned that children who played on the property might have picked up the contaminated soil on their hands and shoes.
Officials were relieved to find that neighbors did not have abnormally high levels of lead in their blood. Test results indicated that the contamination was largely confined to Teurman’s yard--probably because the smelter was so small, officials said.
Teurman and his sons, who reportedly worked with the toxic metal for years without protection, face the greatest health risk. But county health officials, citing confidentiality laws, declined to release the results of their tests.
Fred Teurman could not be interviewed. He is frequently disoriented and unable to recall events, said his wife, Carmen, 62. She said she worries about the health of her husband, their five sons and several grandchildren who have stayed in the home over the years. She wonders if her husband’s problems are the result of advancing age or lead poisoning. She said she did not know the results of her family’s blood tests.
Carmen Teurman, who still lives in the house with her husband, one son and her aunt, said she did not realize the family smelter carried significant health risks until the EPA took action. “My kids, when they were small (teen-agers), would come home from school and work in the shop,” Teurman said. “If I knew it was dangerous for them in there, I never would have let them in there.”
Fred Teurman Jr., who took over his father’s business several years ago, could not be reached for comment.
Records show the elder Teurman first fired up the smelter in 1955. He was notified by the city Planning Department in 1969 that local zoning laws permitted him to operate a lead smelter.
City and county officials said they have been aware of lead pollution from the smelter for at least the past eight years and had ordered Teurman to comply with anti-pollution regulations. But the smelter continued to operate as the case was shuffled among several local, county and state agencies.
County health officials first went to the site in 1984, at the request of state health officials, to check for radioactive material. Teurman had a state permit to handle and dispose of the radioactive material from hospitals and to melt the cylindrical lead containers used to store radioactive isotopes used in medical treatments, said Ken August, a spokesman for the state Department of Health Services.
County officials found no radiation, but discovered the lead smelter and ordered testing. Samples indicated the smelter building and soil just outside the property line were heavily contaminated. The soil contained 38,000 parts of lead per million. Under state guidelines, soil contaminated with 1,000 p.p.m. of lead must be treated as hazardous waste.
“If I had been involved at that time (1984), and I took those samples, I’d have taken immediate action,” said Daniel M. Shane, the EPA supervisor overseeing the current cleanup.
City officials also became aware of the lead contamination in 1984, but they looked to the county and other agencies to take action, said Michael Martinet, who supervises Bell Gardens’ code enforcement officers.
Anastacio G. Medina, chief of the county’s Hazardous Waste Control Program, sent a letter to Teurman in July, 1985, ordering him to clean up the site and to come into compliance with air pollution regulations. But Teurman did not comply, according to the EPA report.
Richard Gillaspy, a county hazardous materials specialist familiar with King Neptune, said the case was referred to the state Department of Health Services, as well as to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollution.
“After we made our referrals, we let the thing sit to see what action would be taken, and I guess no one got to it,” Gillaspy said.
The state’s Radiologic Health Branch, which oversees permits for handling radioactive material, apparently closed the file on King Neptune after discovering there was no problem with radioactivity. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which would handle cases of lead contamination, apparently was not notified about the smelter, said spokesman Rich Varenchik. “I’m unable to find any record of us having received any information about that place” in past years, he said.
An AQMD spokeswoman said she could find no record of King Neptune in the mid-1980s, but she said records from that period may have been purged. The AQMD is required to keep records for only five years. In 1988, county health officials sent a letter to the Teurmans, urging family members--especially children--to be tested for lead poisoning. The Teurmans did not comply, according to an EPA report.
The spark for the current cleanup came late last year. A neighbor called Bell Gardens complaining about black smoke from the smelter building, said Martinet, the Bell Gardens official.
Armed with an inspection warrant, city inspectors entered the workshop. They called in county and state health officials and the AQMD.
The county ordered the Teurmans to discontinue operations and clean up the site. After the Teurmans failed to respond, the county called the EPA in January, according to an EPA report.
The cleanup began in mid-May and was finished last month, according to EPA spokesman Dave Schmidt. It cost about $600,000.
Bell Gardens officials applaud the effort but wonder why it came so late.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Martinet said. “Certainly in this case something did fall through the cracks.”