Enemy Mine

Old mines are polluting the water, but this mountain town doesn't want to get shafted by the EPA.

At first, the townspeople couldn't believe it. And they didn't want to talk about it. It is, after all, the heart of their community, the only flat spot in the canyon where people can walk their dogs, the only place where kids can play safely away from the highway that runs smack through the middle of Jamestown.

Elysian Park, like the Elysian fields of Greek mythology, is tranquil. Mountains surround it, a walking path circles it, and James Creek flows alongside it. Every July 4, most of the 205 residents of this old mining town northwest of Boulder gather there to barbecue, play horseshoes and watch the annual dog contest, in which every entrant takes home a prize. Two years ago, Steve Edelstein's dog, Tootsie, a rescued stray, was named "most improved dog." Last year, Tootsie didn't attend the celebration because it was too hot, which led to her being honored as the "most pampered dog." This year, the festivities were set to continue in the same high-spirited tradition.

No, the townspeople didn't want to acknowledge the fact that their beloved park might become a Superfund site.


The Arapahoe Indians were the first residents of Jamestown, but they were displaced in the 1860s, when newcomers discovered that there was gold in the hills. Miners set up camp along "Jim" Creek and incorporated "Jimtown" in 1863. But when the United States Postal Service opened an office there three years later, it renamed the small settlement "Jamestown" to give it a more dignified air.

Jamestown experienced its share of booms and busts over the next century, but for the most part, it prospered. Gold, lead, silver, fluorspar and uranium were extracted from numerous mines in the 36-square-mile Golden Age Mining District, which included the Burlington, Golden Age, Argo and Emmit mines, all of which were outside the city limits in what is now Roosevelt National Forest. Some of the ore, however, was milled in town near what is now Elysian Park.

Since mining ended, Jamestown has become a bedroom community for Boulder and Longmont; the commuters don't mind the fifteen-minute ride through James Canyon, which turns into Left Hand Canyon before intersecting U.S. Highway 36. When they return to Jamestown in the evening, it still feels, in some ways, like the 1800s; there's no grocery store, shopping mall, hospital or movie theater -- just a fifteen-student elementary school, a post office, a church, a town hall and the Mercantile Cafe, better known as the Merc, where people gather for burgers and beer. Residents like the quiet way of life, and they have the miners to thank for it.

But the miners gave them more than just a romantic piece of Colorado's past -- they also left behind polluted streams and land.

Contamination from the mines and mills above Jamestown has killed all the aquatic life in the Little James Creek and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, could someday pose a health risk to the 14,000 people who get their water from the Left Hand Water District downstream.

Although milling ceased in Jamestown sometime in the middle of the last century, a huge pond containing waste rock remained. After ore is crushed, it is chemically treated in water and then transferred to a settling pond, where the gold or other precious metals are separated out. Fine, sandlike residue, called tailings, is left over and, with it, toxic metals that were extracted in the mining process. No one at the EPA, in the state or county health departments, or in the town itself is exactly sure who covered up the tailings pond or when, but at some point it was capped, re-vegetated and made into the twenty-acre park that is there today (according to local lore, the Army Corps of Engineers did the work in the 1970s). Some tailings are still visible in areas where grass hasn't grown, however, and a recent influx of pocket gophers has disturbed the tailings that are buried.

EPA officials want to clean up the mines and mills, as well as the mess underneath Elysian Park, but they say the only way to get the necessary money is to put the sites on the EPA's National Priorities List (NPL). That would give the agency access to Superfund, a multibillion-dollar trust fund that was established by the United States Congress in 1980 to pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

While the townspeople understand that the mines need to be dealt with, they are more skeptical about whether the nominal testing at Elysian Park -- only five soil samples have been taken -- proves that it qualifies for the NPL. And they don't think the EPA has given them enough information to decide whether to support an effort that could disrupt their lives for years and give their town the stigma that comes with being a Superfund site. The EPA, which was prepared to take steps that would add the sites to the NPL, has now given the town six months to a year of breathing room to figure out how to get the sites cleaned up without Superfund.

But as the townspeople have gathered occasionally to talk it over in the last few months, they've begun to realize that most of their questions may not be answered until after they've been burdened with the Superfund label.

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