When The Superfund Site In Your Backyard Isn’t Your First Priority

When the Environmental Protection Agency puts a neighborhood on its Superfund list, you’d think everyone who lives there would be at all the public meetings. But, Michael Wenstrom of the EPA’s environmental justice program says it’s more complicated than usual to get critical information to people who live the near the Colorado Smelter Superfund site in south Pueblo.

This Superfund site is around the location of a silver smelter that stopped operations over a hundred years ago. Initial testing showed elevated lead and arsenic levels in the area. These are toxins that could cause serious health issues like brain damage or cancer, especially in children.

The effects of lead and arsenic typically don’t show up right away and don’t have obvious physical symptoms. Wenstrom says because the threat isn’t readily apparent, many of the residents in the low income neighborhoods are focused on the more immediate challenges of their lives, like feeding their families and keeping them safe

He also says it’s a challenge to get people to the public meetings, where they’d hear about the health risks, so they don’t know about the steps they can take to mitigate the risks in their homes.

EPA is working with local and state agencies to get the word out to area residents. Meantime work is proceeding at the site. Last month EPA collected soil samples at a dozen homes in the Superfund area. The EPA’s project manager for the Colorado Smelter site, Sabrina Forrest, says this will allow them to test the equipment and processes they plan to use, like the one-inch-diameter core bar or slam bar that a technician uses to collect the soil samples.

She says, “we slam that down to about 18 inches and then we have this nice core that we can lay out horizontally on a table and measure out the different intervals we want to put into sample baggies.”

The initial 12 homes in the pilot test were selected to provide an overview of the area. Forrest says collecting just one sample from just one spot doesn’t give an accurate picture, so sampling in different locations is critical, “to look at different ages of homes — do they have vegetative cover or is it a bare dirt yard? And then sample in all different directions: upwind, downwind and crosswind from where we know the former smelter smokestack was.”

Forrest hopes to announce the results of these initial tests in July. EPA has identified some 1,900 properties for potential testing. Although a few hundred people have already consented to the testing, there are many who haven’t agreed. The overall EPA testing and analysis for the site is likely take several years. So it will be a while before any clean up begins.

Click here to listen to Michael Wenstrom conversation with Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters. 

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