Enemy Mine

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

Once a site is on the NPL, money is freed to do more thorough testing, which determines how much, if any, cleanup is needed. Approximately 9,000 hazardous-waste sites have been identified in the U.S., but only 1,420 are on the National Priorities List. There are currently fifteen active Superfund sites in Colorado, including Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Rocky Flats and Lowry Landfill.

Although the inactive mines and mills near Jamestown and Ward are nowhere near as hazardous as places like Rocky Flats, Williams says that the potential impact on drinking water warrants a place on the NPL. "Right now there is no risk to water users, but Left Hand Creek is a critical watershed since so many people rely on it for their drinking water. We want to assure them that it will be safe in the long term," he explains. "We feel like it's a good opportunity to use Superfund to get in there and clean it up. This is the way Superfund is supposed to work; in too many cases we go in and do emergency response and then put the site on the NPL. That's reactive. This is preventative."

In the past, the EPA has decided not to pursue Superfund listings because of community opposition. Barry Levene, director of the Colorado unit of Superfund Region 8, can recall two such instances in Colorado. About five years ago, the EPA looked into listing sites in Creede because of mine tailings that had seeped into Willow Creek, a tributary to the Rio Grande River, where high levels of zinc, lead and cadmium were showing up. But locals didn't want the stigma of Superfund, so they convinced the EPA to let them take care of it themselves. Creede has since formed the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee and secured a grant from the EPA; the group is currently trying to raise more money from federal agencies and private sources to clean up the creek. "We discussed, for years, what should be done there and we decided to let them take care of it, and they've been pretty successful, but we left the door open for them to come back to us," Levene says.

Durango and Silverton also convinced the EPA to back off. Ten years later, they're still trying to raise money and find other agencies to clean up the Animas River without resorting to Superfund. "They haven't made a huge amount of progress," Levene says. "They're taking baby steps."

But what separates Creede, Durango and Silverton from Jamestown and Ward, David Williams says, "is that we have a drinking-water intake here that supplies 14,000 people. Both towns want to clean up the sites, they are just not sure they want Superfund to do that. On the other hand, there is the community of north Boulder, and they need to be able to rely on their drinking water. Our responsibitly to make sure they have a long-term clean water supply."

The EPA is also eyeing more mines in Left Hand Canyon than just those around Jamestown and Ward. The agency is only beginning to test the Slide Mine's impacts on Left Hand Creek; the mine is near the town of Rowena, located east of Ward and south of Jamestown, and it, too, could someday be a candidate for Superfund.

If the EPA does eventually send its letter to Governor Owens requesting that the sites near Jamestown and Ward be listed on the NPL, and the Governor approves the request, only then will the real community-involvement process begin. After a site is placed on a preliminary list, the EPA is required to hold a sixty-day public comment period, in which anyone -- whether they live in Jamestown, Colorado, or Jamestown, Virginia -- can submit written feedback. EPA officials must respond, in writing, to every negative comment they receive, and that can take anywhere from six months to a year; the responses are published in a register of hazardous-waste sites. At that time, the site goes on the final NPL. If no negative comments come in, the site can be listed immediately.

When Congress first passed the Superfund law, the government was given the authority to collect $1.6 billion in taxes from chemical and petroleum companies; in 1986, Congress authorized the amount of the trust fund to increase to $8.5 billion. About three years ago, the government stopped collecting the tax, however, and Superfund money is expected to run out in another two years, according to Levene. He isn't sure how much remains in the trust fund, but for the last three years, the money needed for environmental cleanup has been supplemented by the federal government's general fund. The EPA gets approximately $1.3 billion a year for Superfund projects, he says, but only about $400 million goes toward the actual cleanup; the rest is spent on research and administrative costs.

After money for Superfund projects is doled out by Congress, the head EPA office in Washington, D.C., divides the money among various sites around the nation according to need, with the most contaminated ones getting the first cut. Then a committee that includes representatives from all ten EPA regions evaluates the remaining Superfund sites; those that present the greatest risk to human or environmental health get the rest of the money.

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