Enemy Mine

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

Not every town has adapted so well to the EPA's presence, though. When the agency identified California Gulch, in Leadville, as a Superfund site in 1983, residents were furious. Many received letters informing them that they might have to pay to clean up the mines that had polluted the Arkansas River. People who tried to sell their homes couldn't find buyers, and local businesses had a hard time getting loans. State Representative Ken Chlouber, a Leadville resident, was quoted in newspapers as saying, "My suggestion is simply to hang one (EPA worker) at each end of town."

But they didn't have to pay after all; the EPA eventually reached agreements with two mining operators to clean up the sites, and most of the reclamation will be done in the next couple of years.

Then there's the Smuggler Mine in Aspen. To clean up the lead the mine had left behind, the EPA originally proposed digging down four feet into the entire Superfund area, which included residential property. "You can imagine how people must have felt. How would you like a bulldozer to dig down four feet into your backyard?" says Doug Young, who is now the district policy director for Representative Mark Udall, but who, as a policy advisor on environmental issues for Senator Tim Wirth in the early '90s, worked on behalf of Aspen residents, urging the EPA to conduct more studies and alter its plans.

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 residents in the mostly low-income section of Aspen that fell within the Superfund boundary couldn't sell their homes or get second mortgages. Locals insisted that the lead levels in their neighborhood weren't high enough to warrant such an intrusive cleanup plan, and after much uproar, the EPA finally backed down. Caps were installed on some areas to contain what was already underground, and the EPA established covenants so that future property owners and developers wouldn't be allowed to dig too deep. The EPA finally took the area off the NPL in 1999, thirteen years after it first became a Superfund site.

"By its very nature, Superfund poses a chicken-and-egg kind of problem," Young says. "On the one hand, the EPA has enough information to know that there's a potential health issue, but to get the funds to find out the extent of it, it needs to get listed. The real issue for those in Left Hand Canyon is where the boundary will be drawn. It could be drawn so that it doesn't include a residential area; if they're outside the boundary, they're not liable. But they could be stigmatized by living next to it. I'm just hoping that the EPA will carry forward the lessons learned from Smuggler to Left Hand Canyon."

The EPA had originally planned to send its letter to Governor Owens, seeking his approval on the Left Hand Canyon listings, in June so that the proposal could be submitted before the beginning of the next fiscal year, which begins in September. But because of the pressure from the community, David Williams decided in late June to delay the listing until the Jamestown and Ward residents have a better understanding of Superfund's possible impacts. (On June 1, Williams led another tour of the contaminated sites for state representatives Bill Swenson and Alice Madden, state senator Joan Fitz-Gerald and a staffer from the governor's office).

"Out of respect for the residents, we're going to go ahead and delay it," Williams says, explaining that they will have six months to a year to figure things out. "A lot of things can develop during that period of time, in terms of other parties offering to help clean. A lot of times, when we start discussing an NPL, folks start coming out of the woodwork to volunteer to clean up. We want to let the communities work through their issues."

Steve Edelstein, JaVayne Metzger and David Patterson haven't paid for their drinks yet, but they decide to make their way over to Elysian Park, glasses in hand; the owners of the Merc trust they'll come back to settle the bill. As they cross the bridge that straddles James Creek, which is flowing high with spring runoff, Metzger remarks on how clean the water is. The dirt road leading to the park is riddled with potholes, and the locals doubt it could tolerate the comings and goings of large trucks. A little boy riding his bike down the road does a good job maneuvering around the deep depressions.

Edelstein waves to "Fast Eddie," a white-haired man who sells hotdogs on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. Metzger wonders aloud about the thousands of mines across Colorado that could someday come under EPA scrutiny.

"Where will it stop?" she asks.

When the three reach the park, the sun is just beginning to set, and the day's last light catches the leaves on the giant cottonwoods along the creek bed, making them shimmer. Two dogs chase each other through the grass, no owners in sight. Patterson stops and lets out an incredulous laugh. Shaking his head, he says, "This hardly looks like a Superfund site."

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