WASHINGTON -- A nationwide crackdown on 36 companies that allegedly discharge lead into the environment was announced jointly yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.
The EPA directed more than $10 million in fines against 12 facilities, while the Justice Department went to court against 24 companies in 19 states and Puerto Rico. The actions are designed to send a signal to industry that the federal government is serious about reducing lead levels, according to EPA Deputy Administrator Hank Habitch.
"We think this will have a significant impact," Mr. Habitch said at a news conference. "We think it will cut back on [the companies'] emissions of lead very dramatically."
Lead is a highly toxic metal that is especially dangerous to children and fetuses. Nervous disorders and mental and physical impairments have been associated with lead poisoning. According to the EPA, the three major sources of lead poisoning are lead-based paint, urban soil and dust contaminated by gasoline, and lead in drinking water.
The Justice Department based its court action on six environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Of the 24 defendants, 10 are located in the Midwest and four in the Mid-Atlantic region, none in Maryland. None of the cases involves criminal charges.
"Our priority in these environmental cases is to halt illegal practices, clean up the contaminated site and, where appropriate, collect penalties and reimbursement for past cleanup costs incurred by the federal government," U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh said yesterday in a statement.
The facilities targeted by the EPA are being fined up to $615,000. A number of companies have already reached settlements with the federal government.
Mr. Habitch said the sanctions and court actions were only the latest in a continuing and aggressive initiative to reduce lead levels in children. The EPA is also looking at lead-abatement procedures through a three-city study of soil contents, he said.
Baltimore, Boston and Cincinnati are the three cities that were selected for the $15 million federally funded study. In Baltimore, $4.8 million is being spent on removing lead from soil and dust in the Park Heights and Walbrook Junction/Rosemont neighborhoods.
The Baltimore neighborhoods were recommended for the study because of their high lead counts, according to Joe Carra, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Toxic Substances.
By identifying the contaminated soil and replacing it with lead-free material, the project is attempting to reduce the lead levels in the blood of neighborhood children. The EPA hopes the study will reduce the children's lead levels to 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
"We hope it will be a model for the lead abatement in the rest of the country," Mr. Carra said. "But we have to wait to see the results of the study."
Results from the Baltimore study are expected in the early fall, Mr. Carra said. But, he said, the Boston and Cincinnati projects and the final report will not be completed until at least next spring.