Enemy Mine

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

Also worrisome is the fact that the boundaries of the Superfund site are unknown; they could extend beyond the park and into residential areas if further testing shows high levels of lead or other metals outside the park's perimeter. And once the mines and the park are listed, the EPA might not have enough money to clean them up; they could just sit there for months, or even years, while the community lives with the stigma that Superfund brings.

Kathy Peterson, general manager of the Left Hand Water District, wonders if upsetting the soil to remove the contamination could release toxic metals into the creek; if that were to happen, her company could shut off its intake valve and rely solely on reservoir water for a couple of months, but she hasn't received any assurance from the EPA or the state health department that the creek water would only be off limits for short periods of time. Right now, Peterson is just trying to calm her customers' fears about their future drinking-water quality, but even she doesn't know what to expect.

"It's hard to develop a trusting relationship with the EPA if they don't give you the whole picture up front; it's hard to buy into it on blind faith," says Colleen Williams, Mark Williams's wife, a CAGE member and the director of the James Creek Watershed Initiative; she's quick to point out that her nonprofit isn't taking a stand on the potential listing, however. "Because it's such a hot issue, it could hurt our organization. I've heard in local gossip that I brought the EPA to town!"

Clay Sisk
Steve Edelstein leads the CAGE citizens' group.
Anthony Camera
Steve Edelstein leads the CAGE citizens' group.


Read more Westword coverage of the Superfund Site

The Ward Town Council shares many of the same concerns, and both towns have written letters to the EPA, Governor Owens, the Boulder County Commissioners and state representatives requesting a delay. The Boulder County government is planning to assemble a panel of six to ten residents in hopes of gathering more information.

"With all due respect to the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, we have had a difficult time trying to pry the information we need out of them," the Ward town councilmembers wrote in their letter. "Specific information that was requested months ago has only been provided to us recently. Information provided by the EPA has been contradicted by information we are receiving from other communities in Colorado that have been through the Superfund process... The town council is left with a huge task of reading and digesting (sometimes conflicting) information, identifying issues and getting word out to the community. It takes time... Holding a couple of public meetings (as is required by federal law) in the mountain communities should not be the end of the process. It is a good start."

David Williams speaks slowly and patiently while explaining why he can't describe exactly what to expect: He doesn't know all the answers himself. It's just not how the process works. Still, he's used to getting asked the same questions over and over again, and the answer is always the same: There is no money to clean up all of the abandoned mines and mills without Superfund (although Honeywell, Boulder County and the U.S. Forest Service may pay for some of the cost). And there is no money available to conduct the kind of comprehensive tests needed to determine if these sites even need to be on the NPL until they are actually on the list.

The United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), known simply as Superfund, on December 11, 1980. The law established cleanup requirements for hazardous waste sites and allowed the federal government to hold responsible parties liable for the costs. The law also created a tax, on chemical and petroleum companies, that was put into a trust fund to pay for the cleanup of hazardous-waste sites "when no responsible party could be identified."

There are only two ways to get Superfund dollars: When there is an emergency situation in which human or environmental health is at risk, such as an oil spill or chemical explosion, or by getting on the NPL. To get a site listed, the EPA has to take preliminary air, water and soil samples, depending on the type of contamination; once the samples are analyzed, the EPA assigns the area a hazard ranking, and if the ranking is high enough, the site qualifies for the NPL.

Williams says the hazard-ranking score of Elysian Park and the mines won't become public record until the sites are listed, but he says the factors that are weighed in determining the score include the volume of waste, the population that's exposed and the likelihood of the waste being released into the greater environment.

"It doesn't take a lot of data to determine if a listing is needed; it just has to be extensive enough to stand up to challenges," says Williams, who believes that the early tests on the mines and park clearly indicate that there is a need for further investigation. "The tests show that the town park is contributing metals to the creek. The size of the park, along with the loading going into the creek, is enough to justify its inclusion."

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