Enemy Mine

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


Nearly two years ago, EPA officials started meeting, informally, with residents in Jamestown and Ward; last July, EPA and county health officials gave them a tour of ten to fourteen mines and mills and said they'd like to remove the waste.

"There was no sense at that point that there was anything imminently planned by the EPA," says Steve Edelstein, a newcomer to Jamestown who has emerged as a town spokesman on the matter. "There was no mention of Superfund."

In fact, it wasn't until early this year that the locals realized the EPA was serious about Superfund. In December, the county health department held a meeting in Jamestown along with a nonprofit organization called the Western Center for Environmental Decision-making. The county had received a $20,000 grant from the EPA to hire the firm to mediate discussions and survey residents on their opinions about the cleanup. Only a few residents attended.

"It wasn't billed as a meeting about Superfund, but as a fact-finding meeting about mine cleanup," Edelstein says. "They said they were exploring options and that just one was Superfund. There was also no mention of the park. It only came up when someone asked a question about it, and they said they had no interest in the park."

Another meeting was held in Jamestown in January, and this time, the small group of locals in attendance asked more pointed questions. In response, EPA officials finally admitted how serious they were about Superfund and said they were planning to send a letter to Governor Bill Owens asking for his approval -- a required step before a site can be placed on the NPL. They also mentioned that they wanted to take a closer look at Elysian Park.

Initial testing had shown that lead levels in the park are higher than normal, particularly around second base of the ball field, where lead measures 2,000 parts per million. State health department officials, who may be involved in the cleanup, say they usually remove lead from contaminated soil sites that contain more than 400 parts per million of the metal, which, if ingested or inhaled, can cause myriad health problems ranging from brain and kidney damage to nerve disorders and muscle pain. Lead is especially dangerous to children, because they are likely to play in dirt, put their fingers in their mouths and eat without washing their hands -- and because their growing bodies absorb lead like sponges.

But Jamestown residents aren't too worried about health risks in the park. "The park is covered with grass, and people have very little exposure to what lies underneath," Edelstein says. "You don't get contaminated by walking around on the grass. If there are any signs of lead poisoning, they're not showing up in the town."

After the January meeting, Edelstein asked the county health department to urge the EPA to hold off on sending the letter to Owens until locals had more information about the situation, and the EPA agreed. "We decided we needed to tell the others in town," says Edelstein, an information-technology consultant who works in Lakewood.

So the county posted fliers advertising the next meeting, in February, as an explanation of Superfund. That meeting drew between twenty and thirty people -- a big turnout for a small town where many people keep to themselves. Representatives from the county showed slides of the mines, gave a history of the area and handed out a Superfund information sheet. Then an EPA official announced that the agency wanted to include the park in the listing.

"I came away from the meeting feeling like I didn't have enough information. I had lots of questions and I felt there was no justification for the park listing, given the data they had," says JaVayne Metzger, a Jamestown resident and environmental consultant who happens to have worked on Superfund sites in the past; she's currently studying an underground plume of pollution that is seeping into water wells at an industrial Superfund site in Virginia. "They had done sampling measurements up and down Little James Creek, which we all know is dead, but they took very few surface soil samples in the park."

"We concluded that we should get organized," Edelstein adds. "There was no discussion then about whether to oppose it or not; we just wanted to collect information." He and about a dozen other residents formed the Citizen's Advisory Group for the Environment, or CAGE, which set about reviewing the data, researching how other Colorado towns had handled the Superfund process and formulating more questions for the EPA.

Many of their questions revolved around their homes. Would their property values go down? How long would the cleanup take? If any of the contamination was discovered on private land, would those homeowners be forced to pay for the cleanup? "One thing we'd heard was that when an area becomes a Superfund site, the EPA's enforcement people come in and try to recover money for the work that's done," Edelstein says. "The EPA has brochures that say they don't go after individual homeowners, but I've heard that that doesn't mean much."

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