Enemy Mine

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

When the money for a certain fiscal year is gone, some sites have to wait until the next year to get funding. "None so far have been postponed indefinitely," Levene says. "Usually a site that doesn't get funded in one fiscal year is just delayed until the next year."

If the Jamestown and Ward sites make it onto the final NPL, the EPA's Williams says it will take a year or two to complete the intensive testing. After that, the cleanup begins. "The money should be there to clean them up, but we can't guarantee that, because funding is at the whim of Congress. I don't know how much funding it would take yet." He adds that the EPA spent less than $100,000 on the preliminary tests.

"To the citizens, it may sound like a convoluted process, but with 9,000 [hazardous-waste] sites, we can't afford to go into every one and do a high-level investigation."

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 EPA stopped listing sites in the Rocky Mountain region in the early 1990s in the hopes of finding alternatives to Superfund, but few materialized. In 1998, Williams was hired to coordinate listings, and the push to list sites resumed. "We don't want to come in and blow our way into the area, but we do have a responsibility to the citizens who want us to clean it up," he says, citing a September 2000 survey of James and Left Hand Canyon residents, which showed that the majority of people support the Superfund effort. "We realize that we're going to be up there for years, and we want to make sure everyone's voice is heard. We don't ever expect unanimous support, but we feel we have majority support."

Although 58 percent of the 65 survey respondents indicated that they support some form of government intervention, most residents were ill-informed about the cleanup options. "Only six respondents (9 percent) were aware of Superfund as an option to remedy the contamination of the creeks," the survey report reads. "Superfund is the most high-profile policy solution for cleaning up the situation, but very few residents were aware of its existence or purpose. The data provided by the EPA for the purposes of this survey were limited, and residents often were concerned about different mines and contaminants than those expressed in the EPA document. There is, for example, little data on domestic wells or uses of Left Hand and James Creeks for recreation. The major problems in the Left Hand Watershed appear to be ecological in nature, yet ecological information is lacking, too."

People are scared not only because of what they don't know, but because of what they do know. Although Williams says the EPA has learned from its past mistakes, those in Jamestown and Ward fear that what's happened in other Colorado communities can happen to them.

Bob Jones remembers when the EPA first came to Idaho Springs and Central City in the early 1980s to begin testing on the more than 1,000 abandoned mines in Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties. "They came in a little heavy-handed. They told people, 'This is what's going to happen, and if you don't like it, so what?' They were telling people who owned property with mines on them that they'd be liable for the cleanup. Why, they told one guy it would cost him $220,000 to clean up his property. He was in his late seventies or early eighties and probably had no more than $1,000 in the bank," says Jones, who lives in Idaho Springs. "The way they were handling it was like an IRS collector coming in."

The locals didn't take too kindly to that approach. One day, when a scientist was on someone's land taking samples, the property owner chased him off with a gun, Jones recalls. He knew something needed to change if the EPA was going to be in the small communities off I-70 for more than a decade, so he helped form the TAG Team, which stands for Technical Advisory Group, to act as an intermediary between the locals and the EPA. The team was made up of Jones, a chemical and electrical engineer; a water scientist; and a hydrogeologist.

"We got the lawyers to go home and the scientists to come in," he says. "We reviewed the EPA's studies, and they listened to us. We have an active watershed group up here that had done some water analysis, and we convinced [the EPA] to look at what they'd done. When what they proposed seemed unreasonable, we stomped on feet until it was reasonable. In short, we were trying to make sure people on both sides knew what was going on."

Once the EPA's enforcement people left and the TAG Team started working with scientists from the EPA and the state health department, the process worked more smoothly. The mines and mills that contributed the most to the contamination of Clear Creek have been cleaned up, Jones says, although the area isn't scheduled to be taken off the NPL until 2006. "We were able to run a very productive operation and work cooperatively," says Jones, adding that a museum in Idaho Springs has a display chronicling the Superfund effort.

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