UP settles Omaha lead dispute with EPA for $25M

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Associated Press

Posted on June 1, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 1 at 9:01 PM

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Union Pacific and the Environmental Protection Agency are ending their decade-long dispute over lead contamination in Omaha with a settlement that reduces the railroad's share of the cost to $25 million instead of the more than $200 million originally sought.

The dispute dealt with nearly 6,000 lead-contaminated Omaha properties. The settlement agreement, reviewed Wednesday by The Associated Press before it was filed in court, includes no admission of wrongdoing by the railroad.

Since 2001, the EPA and Union Pacific have been trying to determine how much the railroad should contribute to the lead cleanup because it owned property where another company ran a lead smelter.

UP and the EPA disagreed about the contamination's source. The EPA blamed industrial sources of lead and Union Pacific argued lead house paint is the real problem.

More than half of the $25 million UP agreed to pay will focus on lead paint problems and improving children's health in Omaha, where the railroad is based.

"We feel it does have a good outcome for the community, and we're pleased to have a final resolution for this," Union Pacific spokeswoman Donna Kush said.

EPA officials were not immediately available Wednesday to comment on the settlement.

As part of the settlement, $11.85 million will support EPA work to deal with lead-paint hazards in Omaha. That includes lead paint remediation work in the city and blood screening of children done by the Douglas County Health Department.

Another $3.15 million will go to the nonprofit Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance to support a five-year education program about the hazards of lead paint and how homeowners can deal with the paint.

Nebraska state Sen. Brenda Council, who represents part of the affected area of Omaha in the Legislature, said she is glad the settlement focuses on kids' health and lead paint.

Council also serves on a community group advising the EPA on the lead contamination and cleanup. She said the settlement appears to follow recommendations the community group has made.

"It's something we've been asking for since the inception: a comprehensive approach to this," Council said.

Several government entities will also share part of the settlement to pay for past costs related to Omaha lead contamination. The EPA will receive $9.5 million, and Nebraska will receive $400,000.

The U.S. Department of the Interior will receive $100,000 to help pay for the cost of monitoring any damage to natural resources in the area.

Much of eastern Omaha has been considered a superfund site by the EPA because of the extent of lead contamination, which can endanger children's health, causing decreased intelligence, slow growth and behavior problems. The EPA has been working to clean up the site for several years.

The EPA has already removed and replaced the soil at nearly 6,000 properties in Omaha, and the agency wants to spend roughly $237 million replacing the soil at 10,000 more. The total cost of the EPA cleanup is likely to exceed $400 million, according to agency estimates.

Union Pacific had argued that lead-based house paint caused the contamination because nearly 80 percent of the homes in the area were built before 1950, when lead paint was common.

Union Pacific maintained it shouldn't be held responsible for the lead contamination, because it only leased property to a smelting company, Asarco, and that ended in 1946 when Asarco bought the land and continued operating a smelter there until its closure in 1997.

Asarco paid $200 million as part of a settlement with the EPA because it ran a lead smelter in Omaha for more than 50 years before the smelter closed. Asarco did not admit fault in the settlement.

Asarco lawyer Greg Evans said the mining company will review the deal EPA officials made with Union Pacific and evaluate Asarco's legal options.

Last fall, Asarco tried to intervene in a federal lawsuit Union Pacific had filed against the EPA after the railroad learned that agency officials may have deleted some records related to the lead-contaminated properties in Omaha.

The EPA documents Asarco is seeking might help it recover compensation from companies that contributed to the contamination.

___

Online:

EPA Superfund: http://www.epa.gov/superfund

Union Pacific site about lead contamination: http://www.uprr.com/newsinfo/media_kit/epa

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