Enemy Mine

At first, the townspeople couldn't believe it. And they didn't want to talk about it. It is, after all, the heart of their community, the only flat spot in the canyon where people can walk their dogs, the only place where kids can play safely away from the highway that runs smack through the middle of Jamestown.

Elysian Park, like the Elysian fields of Greek mythology, is tranquil. Mountains surround it, a walking path circles it, and James Creek flows alongside it. Every July 4, most of the 205 residents of this old mining town northwest of Boulder gather there to barbecue, play horseshoes and watch the annual dog contest, in which every entrant takes home a prize. Two years ago, Steve Edelstein's dog, Tootsie, a rescued stray, was named "most improved dog." Last year, Tootsie didn't attend the celebration because it was too hot, which led to her being honored as the "most pampered dog." This year, the festivities were set to continue in the same high-spirited tradition.

No, the townspeople didn't want to acknowledge the fact that their beloved park might become a Superfund site.


Read more Westword coverage of the Superfund Site

The Arapahoe Indians were the first residents of Jamestown, but they were displaced in the 1860s, when newcomers discovered that there was gold in the hills. Miners set up camp along "Jim" Creek and incorporated "Jimtown" in 1863. But when the United States Postal Service opened an office there three years later, it renamed the small settlement "Jamestown" to give it a more dignified air.

Jamestown experienced its share of booms and busts over the next century, but for the most part, it prospered. Gold, lead, silver, fluorspar and uranium were extracted from numerous mines in the 36-square-mile Golden Age Mining District, which included the Burlington, Golden Age, Argo and Emmit mines, all of which were outside the city limits in what is now Roosevelt National Forest. Some of the ore, however, was milled in town near what is now Elysian Park.

Since mining ended, Jamestown has become a bedroom community for Boulder and Longmont; the commuters don't mind the fifteen-minute ride through James Canyon, which turns into Left Hand Canyon before intersecting U.S. Highway 36. When they return to Jamestown in the evening, it still feels, in some ways, like the 1800s; there's no grocery store, shopping mall, hospital or movie theater -- just a fifteen-student elementary school, a post office, a church, a town hall and the Mercantile Cafe, better known as the Merc, where people gather for burgers and beer. Residents like the quiet way of life, and they have the miners to thank for it.

But the miners gave them more than just a romantic piece of Colorado's past -- they also left behind polluted streams and land.

Contamination from the mines and mills above Jamestown has killed all the aquatic life in the Little James Creek and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, could someday pose a health risk to the 14,000 people who get their water from the Left Hand Water District downstream.

Although milling ceased in Jamestown sometime in the middle of the last century, a huge pond containing waste rock remained. After ore is crushed, it is chemically treated in water and then transferred to a settling pond, where the gold or other precious metals are separated out. Fine, sandlike residue, called tailings, is left over and, with it, toxic metals that were extracted in the mining process. No one at the EPA, in the state or county health departments, or in the town itself is exactly sure who covered up the tailings pond or when, but at some point it was capped, re-vegetated and made into the twenty-acre park that is there today (according to local lore, the Army Corps of Engineers did the work in the 1970s). Some tailings are still visible in areas where grass hasn't grown, however, and a recent influx of pocket gophers has disturbed the tailings that are buried.

EPA officials want to clean up the mines and mills, as well as the mess underneath Elysian Park, but they say the only way to get the necessary money is to put the sites on the EPA's National Priorities List (NPL). That would give the agency access to Superfund, a multibillion-dollar trust fund that was established by the United States Congress in 1980 to pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

While the townspeople understand that the mines need to be dealt with, they are more skeptical about whether the nominal testing at Elysian Park -- only five soil samples have been taken -- proves that it qualifies for the NPL. And they don't think the EPA has given them enough information to decide whether to support an effort that could disrupt their lives for years and give their town the stigma that comes with being a Superfund site. The EPA, which was prepared to take steps that would add the sites to the NPL, has now given the town six months to a year of breathing room to figure out how to get the sites cleaned up without Superfund.

But as the townspeople have gathered occasionally to talk it over in the last few months, they've begun to realize that most of their questions may not be answered until after they've been burdened with the Superfund label.

People have been complaining about contaminated water in Left Hand Canyon since the early mining days; in the 1860s, farmers who relied on Left Hand Creek noticed murky water that was likely the result of mine tailings from the Big Five Mill near Ward, another old mining town west of Boulder, and in 1906, the issue of polluted creek water came before the county commissioners.

Left Hand Creek is fed by James Creek, which in turn is fed by Little James Creek, which, right now, poses the greatest environmental problem of the three. Located above Jamestown, the Little James is the recipient of acidic and metallic water that runs off the nearby Burlington Mine, where fluorspar was extracted as recently as the 1970s (the mineral was mined for the production of hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive liquid used to etch glass).

All that's left of the Burlington is a giant pit; soft soil caused the mine to collapse in on itself. The shaft is long gone, and the rusty equipment often found at old mine sites has disappeared. Down a steep incline from the mine is a stagnant pond where contaminated groundwater has seeped up. The pond changes color depending on the concentration of metals in the water; on some days it's a gooey green, on others it's a deep orange.

High levels of arsenic, beryllium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc, all products of the mine, have been found in the Little James, which is devoid of life. By the time the Little James meets James Creek about a mile away in town, most of the metals have settled out, and James Creek isn't currently considered a health hazard to fish. (Jamestown residents get their drinking water from wells or other creeks.) By the time the James meets Left Hand Creek further down the canyon, the water is even cleaner, but before the confluence of the two, Left Hand Creek, whose headwaters are located near the Captain Jack Mill southeast of Ward, receives polluted runoff from that mill as well as from the Big Five.

The EPA first got involved in Left Hand Canyon in the mid-1980s, when the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported the owners of the Captain Jack Mill, which had started processing ores from nearby mines in the late '70s or early '80s; MSHA had discovered that the mill operators were improperly storing drums of cyanide, acid and other chemicals. The EPA answered this complaint by sending an emergency-response team up the small valley and removing the drums. It then began testing Left Hand Creek.

In October 1992, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Division received reports that the mill was now dumping waste directly into the creek; that same month, a Boulder County Health Department official noticed a milky substance in the water and alerted the EPA. "Tailings-like material was observed entering Left Hand Creek from the unlined tailings pond, turning Left Hand Creek a milky gray color for approximately six miles downstream," the official's report read; water samples turned up high levels of zinc, cadmium, copper and lead.

The Left Hand Water District, which treats the creek water for residents in rural Boulder County, Weld County and the southern part of Longmont, had to shut off its intake valve while the EPA cleaned up. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued the mill operator a cease-and-desist order and later shut down the mill for good. The EPA continued testing Left Hand Creek over the next few years, and in the mid-'90s, it began analyzing Little James and James Creeks as well (the state health department had started sampling those two creeks even earlier).

As the population that relies on Left Hand Creek for drinking water grew rapidly over the next decade, the EPA determined that even though there was no immediate threat to the water supply, it might someday become contaminated if nothing was done to clean up the abandoned mines (the number of water users is expected to double to 28,000 over the next twenty years). In the event of a flood, the tailings that have accumulated along the creek beds could erode into the water and taint the drinking supply, not to mention the groundwater used for wells.

David Williams, NPL coordinator for EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas, says his agency is now trying to determine who's responsible for the pollution. But it appears that most of the mine operators have either gone out of business or left the state.

The United States Forest Service, which owns the land underneath the Golden Age Mine, has agreed to pay for its clean up, however, and Boulder County, which bought the Argo Mine to preserve as open space last fall, may have to pitch in, too, Williams says. At a recent community meeting in Jamestown, it was announced that Honeywell Inc. is interested in voluntarily cleaning up the Burlington Mine, which it owns through a merger with AlliedSignal Inc., (formerly Allied Chemical), the company that once operated the Burlington Mine.

But Williams says he won't know the full extent of the former mining and milling operators' culpability or how much, if anything, they'll have to pay, until the EPA has done a lot more investigating. And that, like many of the other details of cleaning up contamination, won't get done until after the sites around Jamestown have been placed on the NPL.

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."

CAGE invited members of the EPA's enforcement division, which is responsible for identifying polluters, and, if possible, making them pay, to a meeting to answer some of these questions, but they declined. NPL coordinator Williams says the enforcement division isn't allowed to talk to the public about liability during an investigation. But he adds that "homeowners are not likely to be liable. There are residential property exclusions in the law."

And Williams insists that the EPA didn't spring Superfund on the communities; people like Edelstein and his wife, Nancy, who moved to Jamestown two years ago from New Jersey, simply weren't around when the agency first started talking about it, and he says he has the documentation to prove it.

In February 1997, the James Creek Watershed Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the area's water quality, wrote a letter to EPA site assessment manager Pat Smith confirming her attendance at an upcoming public meeting regarding mining's impact on the creek. "You are going to kick off the evening with quick-and-dirty policy discussion of why the EPA chooses to support watershed initiatives. Of special interest to the community will be your concerns with local water quality and the potential for areas within our watershed to become 'listed,' and the ramifications if they are," wrote Mark Williams, a Jamestown resident, Watershed Initiative boardmember and water quality program coordinator for the Boulder County health department. Smith recalls attending that meeting and discussing Superfund.

The EPA also met with the town council in Ward, says David Williams, and the members seemed to support the cleanup. Although there is no impact on Ward's drinking water, because the nearest mine sites are located south of town, some of its residents, like town councilmember Peter Gleichman, worry that the Superfund boundary could include Ward and that the town could be charged for cleanup costs. "The issue isn't that we don't want this cleaned up -- everyone who lives in the mountains has great respect for the environment. We just want to know what it means for us."

David Williams blames the county for not doing a good job of communicating the possibility of Superfund with Jamestown and Ward residents, and Mark Williams, who's been acting as the liaison between the county and the mountain communities, agrees. "It was initially framed as a mine-site cleanup issue," he concedes. "When we talked to the Western Center for Environmental Decision-making about how to frame the issue, we thought, at the time, that we didn't want to talk about Superfund initially because we didn't want it to look like we were pushing an agenda. We didn't want it to look like there weren't other options, but as it turns out, Superfund may be the most viable one."

Once it appeared that Superfund was a serious possibility, the EPA assured townspeople that the sites wouldn't be listed without their support. But CAGE members and Ward residents, who hold a townwide vote on every controversial issue before deciding whether to support or oppose it, say they can't get community consensus without knowing more. They admit that David Williams and people from the state and county health departments have been receptive to them -- officials have shared data when asked, talked freely to residents on the phone and come to town for additional meetings -- but they still don't know what to expect if the sites make it onto the NPL. And people in both towns say they haven't had enough time to inform their neighbors about what they do know.

"We feel this whole process has been railroaded," says David Patterson, who's part of CAGE and serves on the Jamestown board of trustees.

Jamestown residents worry about the effects of big trucks coming to haul out waste. The roads may not be able to withstand the increased traffic, and the town may not have enough money to maintain them. More traffic also poses a safety concern: There are no sidewalks in town, and crossing the main street is already dangerous. The trucks will also stir up dirt on the unpaved road leading to the park, and since homes line both sides of the street, people aren't too keen on what could be years of dust and noise in their quiet neighborhood. The park is in the middle of town, so homeowners are also worried about their property values declining.

"There may be a short period of time where residents will see a flattening of property values," David Williams acknowledges. "But someday the property may be more attractive because there are no tailings left. We just have to continue on with our remedial investigation, which may show that nothing needs to be done to the park." Or, he says, the studies may show that the park needs only slight remediation, like additional vegetation or a barrier to prevent tailings-laden water from seeping into the creek.

The fact that those things won't be known until after the town is listed as a Superfund site doesn't make sense to CAGE members. "That's like performing surgery on someone, opening them up and looking at their organs and then saying they need a haircut," Edelstein says.

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!"

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.