Arsenic cleanup forced her out of home. Now her trees, shrubs and roses are gone

Kathleen Shearer talks about Long Lane cleanup

Long Lane resident Kathleen Shearer talks about the cleanup of arsenic-contaminated soil in that Montgomery County neighborhood.
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Long Lane resident Kathleen Shearer talks about the cleanup of arsenic-contaminated soil in that Montgomery County neighborhood.

Kathleen Shearer is glad to be back home.

Shearer, 68, and other residents of Long Lane in Montgomery County had to leave their homes for about four months as the state dug up tons of arsenic-contaminated soil and hazardous waste from their yards.

“I miss my trees, my shrubs, my rose bushes,” Shearer said this week.

The waste was from a wood-processing plant that decades ago had used arsenic in the preservation process.

Shearer and her neighbors now have new storage buildings, new gravel on Long Lane, new skirting beneath their mobile homes, and new dirt to replace the contaminated soil. The state says the cost of the remediation was $3.5 million.

A 15-year resident of Long Lane, Shearer said she is satisfied with what the state has done. “It was just the stress of the whole situation. It was a horrible ordeal.”

Residents began returning to their homes in January, but the legal disputes surrounding the cleanup of Long Lane are far from over.

For one thing, the state Energy and Environment Cabinet wants to be reimbursed for the $3.5 million it spent on the cleanup between August and the end of December. The state seeks that reimbursement from Southern Wood LLC, a Winchester company and successor to another company that operated the wood-processing plant on Long Lane.

In court documents filed in Montgomery Circuit Court, the state says 34,000 tons of solid waste and 250 tons of hazardous waste were removed from the Long Lane neighborhood. An initial status conference on the cabinet’s attempt to recover its costs will be held Tuesday in Frankfort.

Meanwhile, some Long Lane residents seek to hold the state accountable for not cleaning up the site in the 1990s.

The residents filed suit in September seeking damages from Southern Wood and its predecessor, and from the estates of people who were involved with those companies and who sold lots to unsuspecting buyers.

The lawsuit was amended earlier this month to add the names of current and former state employees who “failed to act” to clean up the site or to alert residents to the dangers that the site posed.

Of the six people named, only one, Robert H. Daniell, an environmental control supervisor, is listed in a database as an employee of the State Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Michael V. Welch, Hannah J. Helm, Fazollah H. Sherkat, Robert B. Padgett and Rodney G. Polley are named in the lawsuit but aren’t listed in the database as current state employees.

The suit cites internal memorandums and communications in which the employees discuss what should be done at the Long Lane site.

Southern Wood Treatment Plant opened in the 1970s and closed about 1983. The state pursued efforts from 1984 to 1998 to clean up “improperly disposed” equipment, materials and chemicals, but somehow the state “lost track” of the Long Lane file from 1998 to 2016, the suit alleges.

Lanny Brannock, a cabinet spokesman, had no comment about the amended lawsuit or the litigation.

In the meantime, beginning in 1999, owners of the site subdivided the Long Lane property and sold it off in parcels.

Then, in 2016, the state “determined that there was an absolute need to alert the residents on Long Lane of the contamination, to remediate the site,” and to begin an enforcement action against Southern Wood, the lawsuit says.

Arsenic occurs naturally in both soil and water, and it can cause some low levels to appear in the body. Research in Kentucky has shown that the majority of the studied population has a low level of arsenic in their bodies.

In September, samples of toenail clippings were taken from Long Lane residents to determine the presence of arsenic in their bodies. Arsenic deposited in toenails gives scientists an indication of how much arsenic might be stored in the body.

When the results came back in November, one Long Lane resident had 21.5 times “the baseline levels of arsenic found in the majority of the studied population in Kentucky,” according to court documents. Another resident had 35 times the baseline level.

The Montgomery County Health Department is unable to predict how elevated levels of arsenic will affect each person’s health, but the American Cancer Society says elevated levels can cause cancer andother serious health problems.

Southern Wood and other defendants said they are not legally accountable and that the lawsuit should be dismissed. They say people who bought lots on Long Lane should have followed the legal doctrine of “let the buyer beware,” and should have conducted a reasonable inspection of the land before they bought the lots.

But attorneys for the residents say that doctrine applies only when defects could be reasonably found.

“That is certainly not the case here, where testing for arsenic is not reasonable due diligence in buying property,” the attorneys for residents say in a motion opposing dismissal of the suit.

Some motions have not been decided because the two Montgomery circuit judges, William E. Lane and Beth Lewis Maze, took themselves off the case. Julia Hylton Adams, a retired Clark circuit judge, was appointed earlier this month as a special judge to handle the lawsuit.

Shearer, who is not a plaintiff in the suit, said the time away from home was trying.

Shearer, her disabled daughter, Jennifer, her son, Jackson, and a woman who lives in the home to take care of the daughter all lived in a 30-foot camping trailer while the state was doing the cleanup.

Shearer and the others set up the camper on a lot in Judy, a Montgomery County community north of Mount Sterling. They spent four months there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“You put four adults … in a 30-foot camper for that long and I think we did pretty good,” Shearer said. “Nobody killed anybody. There might have been a few times we thought about it.”

A contractor will re-seed the Long Lane properties and do some landscaping later this year. AT&T will begin reinstalling phone lines in the area over the next several weeks.

Shearer said she doesn’t have any complaints about the remediation work.

“The only complaint I had was leaving my home,” she said. “That was the hard part. I shed a lot of tears when I was in the camper, but I managed to make it through.”