This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.
The Asarco lead refinery along the Missouri riverfront was Omaha’s largest company in the mid-1880s. In fact, in the early 1900s, the Omaha plant was the largest lead refinery in the world.
The company then known as American Smelting and Refining Co. was looked upon as a good
But a century went by and people began learning how lead could pollute the Missouri River and the air, as well as possibly affect their health. Asarco began facing scrutiny, especially from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Not only was there a question of pollution, but the riverfront area that sustained other heavy industrial companies, including four battery companies, was unattractive and unappealing.
“The riverfront was drab and dismal and it was embarrassing to come to Omaha out of Eppley with all the industrial and junk yards and Asarco, which had the largest land piece on the riverfront,” Former mayor Hal Daub says.
Cleaning up the area was a first step toward a renovated riverfront. For Daub, focus on the riverfront began in 1995 with debate on renovating the old Civic Auditorium that sat in downtown Omaha. Daub proposed that, instead of spending city funds fixing up the auditorium, the city should clean up the riverfront and build a new auditorium there.
At the same time, he also saw developing the riverfront as key to downtown renewal. Prominent business leaders were telling him they might move their companies from the dying downtown.
Daub wanted a cleaned-up riverfront to anchor the renovation of downtown. So he picked up the phone and called Asarco’s corporate office in New York.
A former U.S. congressman, Daub knew his way around the Superfund and federal rules on cleaning up sites determined to be hazardous to human health.
“I knew Asarco qualified as a Superfund and that Nebraska could shut down the plant,” Daub says. “We got the title to the land and $50 million for cleanup from Asarco.”
He is quick to point out that Asarco was cooperative. “They understood the dilemma they faced in a changing environment and they agreed.”
The facility closed in 1997 after 110 years. Demolition ended in late 1999, completing the largest cleanup of lead-contaminated yards in history.
The closing of Asarco paved the way toward Omaha’s riverfront development. Today Lewis & Clark Landing and Storz Brewing Company sit where Asarco was located.
In 2000, the city added a second project in the revitalization effort, buying 107 acres from Union Pacific where the railroad’s shops sat near the river, after cleanup efforts directed by the EPA.
The cleanup also made way for the new convention center-arena in 2000, the project that had first turned Daub’s attention to the riverfront. Voters approved bonds to build near the riverfront what is now the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
The Union Pacific land also now hosts TD Ameritrade Park, the Hilton Hotel, and parking lots, according to Greg Peterson, who was then the city’s assistant planning director.
Union Pacific and Asarco were both important to an integrated plan for development along the riverfront, says Daub.
“Sometimes you have to tear down old stuff because you can’t see past the ugliness of what’s there in order to envision what could be there,” says Daub.