By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LIBERTY TWP. - When the three remaining families on Backtrail Court look out their front window, they don't see families, furnishings or decorative flags at the homes across the street.
Soon, they'll be watching bulldozers ripping up those lead-contaminated yards around the empty, new homes in Lexington Manor subdivision - something of a suburban ghost town in the aftermath of last May's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declaration making it a Superfund site.
But none of the 42 new houses there - ranging in price from $199,000 to $354,000 - will be demolished, according to a document that builder Ryland Homes will submit today to the EPA.
February 2000: Lexington Manor Inc., with developer Harry Thomas Jr. as secretary and investor, buys 26-acre farm that had been a skeet-shooting range in the 1960s.
February-September 2000: When elevated levels of lead are found, the tainted soil is rototilled with clean soil. Some dirt is mixed with lime and buried. The Payne Firm Inc., a Blue Ash environmental consulting firm, assures Thomas and Ryland Homes officials in writing that the land is safe for homes. Streets are installed.
September 2001: Ryland begins building and selling homes.
Fall 2002: A resident discovers high levels of lead in his yard.
December 2002: Neighbors contact the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Ryland officials notify residents that elevated levels of lead were found in a yard.
January-March 2003: Ryland tests soil in some yards. The first homeowner sues Lexington Manor Inc., Ryland and the Payne Firm.
April 2003: The EPA declares the subdivision a Superfund site, which qualifies it for an immediate federal cleanup.
May 2003: Ryland offers to buy back all homes from Lexington Manor residents.
June-July 2003: Ryland settles lawsuits brought by 20 families.
August 2003: EPA announces Ryland is the only party to sign a federal administrative order to remove the contaminated soil, at the company's expense.
August-November 2003: More than 15,000 soil samples are taken to determine extent of contamination.
October-December 2003: EPA cleans up five properties east of the subdivision, on Millikin Road and Megan Drive, at a cost to the government of $500,000.
Today: EPA deadline for Ryland to file detailed plans to remove contaminated soil from 32 of the 46 lots.
March: Preparation for removing soil scheduled to begin. A public meeting at Liberty Township to explain the six-month process is planned for late in the month.
The document outlines plans to start removing up to 25,000 tons of soil from 32 of 46 lots next month. Excavations will range from 6 inches to 19 feet, depending on the level of lead contamination from the former skeet-shooting range.
Cleanup should be complete by fall, when the homes will be put back up for sale, said Winfield Ziegenfuss Jr., Ryland vice president for land operations.
The biggest cleanup of residential lead contamination in Greater Cincinnati could cost Ryland as much as $2.5 million, on top of at least $7.5 million for buying back 27 homes.
Though the homes will not be touched during cleanup, at least eight driveways will be torn up, said Steven Renninger, on-scene coordinator from the U.S. EPA Cincinnati office.
Ryland officials say they've already had prospective customers inquire about the two-story homes located in the top-rated Lakota Schools District and Southwest Ohio's fastest-growing township.
Extremely high lead levels were found in fall 2002, a year after homes were built on what was a skeet-shooting range in the 1960s. Soil samples revealed lead levels of 10,000 parts per million - far exceeding the government's maximum acceptable standard of 400 ppm, Renninger said.
The developer that constructed the streets - Lexington Manor Inc., whose agent is Harry Thomas Jr. of Fairfield - had rototilled the tainted soil before Ryland built homes. Lexington Manor Inc. and Ryland also were assured in 2000 by The Payne Firm, a Blue Ash environmental consulting company, that the land was suitable for residential development.
Ryland, after being sued by 20 homeowners last year, agreed in May to buy back the homes. In August, the California-based homebuilder signed an agreement with the federal government to pay for soil removal and replacement. Lexington Manor Inc. has refused to sign the agreement and participate in the remediation.
Only two of the seven families remaining in the subdivision off Millikin Road plan to stay. Most refuse to speak to the media, citing a confidentiality clause in their Ryland settlement last June.
"We're just looking forward to moving on," said Mark Fosters, whose Furlong Drive home is across the street from some of the heaviest lead concentrations. "We should be out by the end of the month."
Ryland's cleanup will be more extensive than the EPA work last fall on five lots east of the subdivision along Megan Drive and Millikin Road. Crews there scraped down only 1 or 2 feet, "like building a shallow swimming pool," Renninger said.
The tainted dirt was hauled to Stoney Hollow landfill in Montgomery County, south of Dayton, and replaced with clean fill, he said.
Though Lexington Manor excavations will range from 6 inches to 19 feet, many will be 4 feet deep, Ziegenfuss said. The deepest parts will be in the five "bury pits," where the developer apparently covered up some of the tainted soil after rototilling, he said. They are located in back yards between the Back Trail Court and Palomino Lane cul-de-sacs, and the Furlong Way and Palomino Lane cul-de-sacs, he said.
The contaminated soil will be hauled to either the Rumpke landfill in Colerain Township, or Stoney Hollow, Renninger said.
Not all the dirt will be hauled away. "Anything that is under 400 ppm can be used again," Ziegenfuss said.
Homes will not be removed because the primary health hazard comes from lead dust contaminating the air, Renninger said. Lead under a house foundation does not pose an immediate health danger, he said.
The cleanup plan will be explained to Liberty Township residents by U.S. EPA officials in late March at a public meeting in the township hall, says Rafael Gonzales, the agency's Chicago-based spokesman.
Christine Matacic, Liberty Township trustee and acting township administrator, praised the EPA and Ryland for acting swiftly to resolve the problem. "It shows (Ryland) is being responsible. They have a concern for their customers," she said.
Ziegenfuss declined to talk about Ryland's remediation costs. Based on the EPA's $500,000 cost for reclaiming the adjacent properties, the company could pay about $2.5 million for the Lexington Manor excavation and 15,000 soil samples. (A similar lead cleanup at the Kings High School athletic fields in Warren County, is being supervised by Renninger.)
Already, Ryland has spent $6.4 million to buy back 22 homes from families who had moved here since November 2001, according to Butler County records. The company also has agreed to purchase five more homes - with an original value of $1.1 million - from families waiting to move into new Ryland homes elsewhere.
Ryland's work plan estimates that reclamation will take up to six months, depending on the weather.
"We want to get this completed as soon as possible," Ziegenfuss said. "We would hope to be able to put (Lexington Manor homes) back on the market in the fall."
No decisions have been made about changing the name of the subdivision, or whether to pursue legal action against the developer and environmental consultant.
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