Guilty Knowledge – PULP’s three month investigation into pollution at the old Colorado Smelter Site

In the ruins of the old Colorado Smelter lies a few bricks, a slag heap and the struggle to know how to protect a community.

Part One

0. The Investigation


Much of the brick and mortar that was Pueblo’s Industrial Cerberus lay in ruins on the city’s south-side; the neighborhoods that sustained the once titanous Colorado Smelter have since their revolutionary age quieted; a necropolis of hills of slag remain and have become commonplace; and to Puebloans the old slag piles and waste around the sites of the city’s historic steel mill and smelters hardly even register to the senses as they drive past them on the way to work or home.  

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s and State of Colorado’s top scientists, local healthcare leaders, and academics warn slag and toxic waste are a very real danger to public health for Pueblo which sit invisibly in the soil, taking the form of arsenic and lead contamination.  

In revisiting the issue of lead and arsenic contamination near the site of the old Colorado Smelter, including the Bessemer and Eilers neighborhoods, it seems in order to start at the beginning.  

 1. The Old Colorado Smelter

Sites such as this weren’t uncommon in the golden age of Pueblo’s steel industry. This image is from the 1950s where slag is being dumped east of the CF&I. This scene would be similar at the Colorado Smelter, just north of the current Eiler’s neighborhood, where the smelter dumped slag into a nearby ravine. The smelter ceased operations in 1908 but the slag remained. Photo courtesy the Bessemer Historical Society / CF&I Archives. 
Sites such as this weren’t uncommon in the golden age of Pueblo’s steel industry. This image is from the 1950s where slag is being dumped east of the CF&I. This scene would be similar at the Colorado Smelter, just north of the current Eiler’s neighborhood, where the smelter dumped slag into a nearby ravine. The smelter ceased operations in 1908 but the slag remained. Photo courtesy the Bessemer Historical Society / CF&I Archives. 

The Colorado Smelting Company  (Eilers Smelter) began operating in 1883. It was constructed in a ravine between Santa Fe Avenue and the D&RG railroad tracks near what is now I-25. The owners of the Madonna Mine, located in Monarch, built the Colorado Smelter in order to smelt the extracted silver-lead ore in a cost effective manner.  

By 1889 the smelter operation consisted of eight blast furnaces, along with two furnaces for desulphurization of ores and one fusing furnace used to slag the flue dust. Twenty kilns were used to desulphur crushed matter from the blast furnaces.  The blast furnace smokestack stood 132 feet tall.  

During the years of smelter operation, various heavy metal contaminants were exhausted through the smoke stacks and dispersed through the air pathway onto the surface soils near the site.

The Colorado Smelter closed in 1908. Some of the slag from the smelter was used as track ballast for the D&RG track constructed between Florence and Canon City.  In 1923, bricks from the blast furnace smoke stack were used to construct the St. Mary School.  At present, there are still large slag piles in the ravine at the Colorado Smelter site. The nearest residence is located approximately 200 feet from the Colorado Smelter slag heap.  

An estimated 3,500 acres of wetlands are located within four miles of the Colorado Smelter site, including Runyon Lake.  This area is a designated State Wildlife Area, and is located between one quarter and one-mile northeast of the smelter site.  

The Arkansas River Valley, east of the smelter site, has been classified as a potential conservation area due to its rich biodiversity.  Several threatened or endangered species call Pueblo’s ecosystems home.  

Metals including cadmium, arsenic, lead and zinc have been found at alarming levels in residential areas surrounding the Colorado Smelter site.

2. Study of the site – How it all started

In 1989, a passerby noticed orange slug coming out of the Santa Fe Ave. culvert. This photo was taken January 2013, over twenty years after someone alerted officials of the discharge. Just yards away sits the St. Charles Mesa intake.
In 1989, a passerby noticed orange slug coming out of the Santa Fe Ave. culvert. This photo was taken January 2013, over twenty years after someone alerted officials of the discharge. Just yards away sits the St. Charles Mesa intake.

1989: Red Discharge in the Arkansas and the Pueblo County Health Department

Scientific attention was originally directed at the region near sites of Pueblo’s old smelters in 1989 when a concerned citizen reported, to the Pueblo County Health Department, seeing a red-orange discharge into the Arkansas River coming from an eighteen inch culvert.  This culvert extends from the levee on the south side of the Arkansas River, directly below the Santa Fe Avenue Bridge.  Pueblo County proceeded to collect a grab sample of the discharge on September 26, 1989.

Results of the first samples confirmed that there were in fact elevated concentrations of several metals in the flow coming from the Santa Fe Bridge culvert. This information was reported to the CDPHE.

1991: A Preliminary Assessment of Pueblo and a History of Smelting

A preliminary assessment of the geology, climate, wildlife, ecosystems, population, and history of Pueblo near the Santa Fe Bridge culvert area was compiled by the CDPHE in 1991, preceding further sampling and inspection.

CDPHE discovered that six smelters had operated in the vicinity of the Santa Fe Bridge culvert between 1878 and 1921.  The sites of these old smelters would become target for dangerous metals research.

1994-1995: A First Stab at Sampling and Analyzing First Field Research

In 1994, samples of soil were first collected from the sites of Pueblo’s historic smelter activity, including the Colorado Smelter, and sampled once again after the first results were released by the CDPHE, which raised alarm when each of the 33 samples collected reported levels of Arsenic exceeding the EPA’s threshold for cancer risk to humans.

Also in early 1995, an EPA contractor performed soil sampling and research on lead and arsenic levels on slag piles, including eight samples from the slag pile at the site of the former Colorado Smelter.  Again, the detection limit for the arsenic was reported at levels significantly above the EPA threshold for cancer risk and also the Residential Soil Cleanup Table Value Standard, which was established by CDPHE in 1997 to better protect public health.

On August 16, 1995, another EPA contractor conducted sampling on the Colorado Smelter slag pile and nearby soils. Eighty-eight samples were collected and analyzed for arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

Seventeen of these samples were sent to an independent laboratory for confirmatory analysis.  Very poor correlation was observed between the analysis conducted by the EPA contractor and the independent laboratory for both arsenic and cadmium, making the data for arsenic and cadmium useless.

However, the EPA contractor’s lead analysis correlated well with the independent laboratory’s lead analysis.  Fifty-nine of the 88 samples collected exceeded the cancer risk threshold and cleanup standards for lead.

2006: CSU-Pueblo’s Research May Point to Larger Problem

 Sampling and analysis was also conducted on Pueblo soil by Professor of Biology at Colorado State University-Pueblo, Moussa Diawara.  Sixty-eight soil samples were collected at 33 locations and analyzed for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.  All 68 samples exceeded the carcinogenic risk threshold for arsenic.  The study concluded that a higher-density geochemical survey would be needed to identify smaller and possibly higher amplitude “hotspots” of toxic metal contamination around Pueblo.

2010-2011: Lead and Arsenic Pollution in Soil from the Colorado Smelter

Due to the sporadic and unsystematic nature of the first round of research conducted around the Colorado Smelter site, the scope of contamination remained largely unknown to scientists.  Over a decade later, the CDPHE and EPA returned to conduct a second round of sampling and analysis on the Colorado Smelter site, at which time a clearer portrait of a lead and arsenic contaminated hotspot in the Santa Fe Avenue, Bessemer, and Eilers neighborhoods was presented.

The research was comprised of samples from a total of 47 residential lots, three vacant lots, and one frontage road near the Colorado Smelter.  Samples were collected June 21-23, 2010.

Seventy-three samples were collected from residential properties or vacant lots that exceeded three times Pueblo’s average concentrations for lead in soil.  Three samples collected from 15 unique properties contained concentrations of lead in excess of 400 parts per million, the EPA threshold for cleanup and remediation.

Six samples, collected from four unique properties, exceeded both three times Pueblo averages and the EPA cleanup and remediation level for arsenic.  Although because of an analytic difficulty most of the arsenic results had to be tossed out; scientists were lead to believe arsenic contamination is potentially more widespread and severe than the current data reports.

3. The Issue of Lead and Arsenic in Pueblo’s Soil

The issue of lead and arsenic contamination in the soil of neighborhoods around Pueblo most recently entered public consciousness with the EPA’s 2010 study of hazardous metal concentrations in soil around the Bessemer and Eilers neighborhoods.  The study showed of the 78 samples collected 73 contained levels of metals that exceeded the cancer risk threshold and Superfund threshold, i.e., the federal environmental cleanup process.  Two metals detected at poisonous and carcinogenic concentrations were arsenic and lead.  Other metals found at levels between one and three times the Pueblo soil averages were cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc.

The 2010 research compiled by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is neither the first nor the only data that brings to attention the issue of soil and surface water contamination on Pueblo’s south-side associated with historic steel-making and smelting operations. There exists extensive data documenting soil and some surface water contamination of Pueblo south-side that spans over twenty years.  

4. The Health Concerns of Lead and Arsenic

From a public health perspective lead and arsenic contamination in residential areas is extremely problematic.

Lead poisoning affects nearly every system in the body, and often occurs without noticeable symptoms. Arsenic is the highest priority and most poisonous chemical listed on the EPA’s Priority List of Hazardous Substances.

While lead poisoning affects adults, children are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.  Lead enters the body through either ingestion or inhalation.  Low but chronic exposure, as can be the case with lead contaminated soil, can affect the developing nervous system in subtle but persistent ways.  In children, blood-lead levels as low as 10 to 15 micrograms per hundred milliliters can stunt growth rates, affect attention span, cause learning disabilities, lower IQ scores, damage hearing, and cause behavioral problems.  The most common way for a child to ingest lead is by putting objects in the mouth, i.e., toys or hands that have lead-contaminated dust or dirt on them.

Arsenic is classified as a known human cancer-causing agent.  Effects from ingestion and skin exposure to arsenic most often appear as discoloration and lesions on the skin, but also create problems in the gastrointestinal tract, causing chronic nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.  Ingestion exposure has also been linked to cancer of the skin, bladder, liver, and lungs.

5. 2013: The Burden of Leadership

Currently, the city of Pueblo and the EPA are at a stalemate between the first and second stage of the Superfund process.

The decision to stand still or move forward with working on the issue of lead and arsenic contamination from the Colorado Smelter lies primarily with the leadership of the seven members of Pueblo City Council.

Around Pueblo City Council is a circle of expert advisers: local, state, and federal, from the fields of science, health, and academia; all parties involved have an opinion on how to move forward in dealing with the paramount issue of lead and arsenic soil contamination in Pueblo neighborhoods.

Still, no tangible progress has been made to begin the cleanup or deem it unnecessary.

What follows is an in depth investigation into not only where city, state, and federal leaders currently stand on how to move forward with the issue of lead and arsenic contamination from the Colorado Smelter, but also in doing so to present a portrait of the internal dynamics of local leadership and decision-making in the face of potentially major public health dangers.

6. The 23 years of Denial and The Fivefold Path to Remediation:

The Superfund process, which Pueblo has been involved in since the first preliminary assessment conducted in 1991 by EPA and CDPHE, is a fivefold path to a federal cleanup of a contaminated site posing health risks to citizens.

The first step in the Superfund Process is the Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection (PA/SI) of a potentially contaminated area and a thorough inspection of the potentially contaminated site.  Based on data from the PA/SI, a Hazard Ranking System (HRS) score is given to a site based on human health and environmental risks.  If that score is above 28.5, then the area qualifies as a Superfund caliber site.

Second, meetings should then be scheduled by the EPA with the community, local health departments, local elected officials and other stakeholders to explain the benefits of being listed as a Superfund site. The EPA must gain community acceptance and a letter of support from the elected officials requesting the Governor’s support for Superfund designation.

Third, the site is then proposed by the EPA to the NPL and an announcement of its listing is published in the Federal Register.

Fourth, after being added to the NPL and designated a Superfund site, a remedial investigation and feasibility study is conducted to determine how to best tackle a cleanup of the site.

Fifth, once recommendations for remedial action have been made, the EPA goes on record to the community with a plan for remediation.  Finally, a remediation design is engineered and cleanup of the contaminated site occurs.

Part Two

7. EPA: The Case for Cleanup

The EPA has expressed it wants to work with city council to find a way to make progress toward cleaning up dangerous concentrations of lead and arsenic in the soil around the Colorado Smelter site.

Sabrina Forrest, EPA National Priority List Coordinator in charge of the Colorado Smelter site, explained, “At this point we really don’t know what the overall threat of contamination is.” But what is known by the EPA is of the homes and the remaining slag area sampled there are dangerously high concentrations of arsenic and lead, above health-based screening levels, as well as alarmingly above normal levels for Pueblo soil.

Forrest elaborated, CDPHE and EPA focused on a sampling radius about a quarter-mile around the smelter site and downwind from the Colorado Smelter smoke stacks, the most likely area for smelter fallout.  According to Forrest, resources are limited to pay for initial site screenings to prioritize what are NPL caliber sites.  After a site is listed on the NPL much larger technical and financial resources become available.

Although an HRS score is assigned to areas that undergo the Superfund process’s Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection, currently this information for the Colorado Smelter case is confidential, explained the EPA.

Forrest assured a draft of the Colorado Smelter area’s HRS score is greater than 28.5, the threshold for designating an area an NPL, Superfund caliber site.

Chris Wardell, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator for the Colorado Smelter case said that the “most recent outreach we have done was conducted on September 24-26, 2012.”  Wardell explained the EPA teamed up with local groups to go door to door in the Bessemer and Eilers neighborhood to ask a variety of questions about the Colorado Smelter issue.

These groups passed out information about the dangers of high lead and arsenic levels in soil, for children and adults, as well as fact sheets on the Superfund effect on property values.  They also asked residents if they supported listing their neighborhood on the NPL.  Wardell continued, of the residents who answered that question “45 said it was a good or great idea, 29 were supportive, 15 answered favorable, and 17 said no.”

The EPA would not comment on how long a cleanup of our relative scale might take.  Nor would they comment on what a cleanup might entail, what it might be projected to cost, or whether Pueblo would be responsible for any of the cleanup costs.  

CDPHE did comment that the city of Pueblo might be responsible for paying to cleanup the park next to St. Mary’s Church that is located in the contamination area.

Forrest concluded her past experiences with the Superfund process have taught her that sites where a collaborative process comes in early tend to move along more rapidly.  The key to a successful and efficient experience with the Superfund process is putting together a strong group of stakeholders, who want to create a vision for their community.

Wardell commented, “We’ll work with everybody through this process and people do not need to be afraid of the Superfund stigma.  There is a lot of benefit for this neighborhood that can happen if the site becomes listed.”

8. Comments from the Academy: The Defense of Inconclusive

The next step in understanding the Colorado Smelter contamination case is to breakdown the third party, independent, academic opinion. 

Professor of Biology at CSU-Pueblo, Moussa Diawara is an independent, academic scientist who studied levels of dangerous metals in soils around Pueblo in association with low-income and racial minority neighborhoods.

City council has lobbied for money to be granted to the work and research Diawara is compiling. City council is also partial to the inconclusiveness of Diawara’s data when refuting the most recent research compiled by EPA and CDPHE on the Colorado Smelter area.

Diawara confirmed his research does not rule out the possibility of lead poisoning.  What the study does show, Diawara explained, is that “based on EPA standards there was no requirement for cleanup [of Pueblo broadly], however levels were high enough to raise concern.”  But when Diawara spoke about standards for cancer risk rates he urged caution in interpreting the data.  As far as he is concerned any level of cancer causing chemicals in Pueblo soil is dangerous.

Diawara elaborated, “Any level can raise concern… But our study [2006 Study] did not actually show that Pueblo was above cleanup levels of EPA standards.”

From a scientific perspective Diawara admitted, “it would not be feasible to use his 2006 study to refute the research compiled in 2010 by the EPA.  Our data was localized to Pueblo alone,” said Diawara, “and showed that Pueblo has higher levels than national averages for dangerous metals, that is a microcosm right there,” then within that zone EPA did some more sampling recently in 2010, and what they actually did find were higher levels inside of some specific areas of our sampling zone, “so that is another microcosm.”

Diawara expressed respect for the EPA data, but explained that bio-monitoring of blood-lead level data, which he had recently conducted on 169 children around Pueblo, would be the kind of data that could sway his opinion.  He confirmed that his blood-lead level studies did put a degree of focus on lead and arsenic hotspots identified by his and EPA’s research and that some children from the Eilers neighborhood did show elevated blood-lead levels.  

“If we do have elevated levels of lead and arsenic, and we are also seeing that the kids in these areas are at greater risk, then I would support the concept of cleanup,” Diawara said. 

The difficulty is great, explained Diawara, in translating actual health risks from scientific data, “You cannot sample every specific spot and you do have to estimate.”  Diawara added that even with the bio-monitoring sampling he has been conducting there can be difficulties.

Diawara admitted, he can’t be sure of the cause and effect relationships his research shows.  

“It is not enough to conclude a site needs or does not need to be cleaned based on what his data shows; unless he knows how long the children tested have lived in a specific area, for example, or if they might have moved into or out of the area recently.”

Diawara hopes to fully summarize his data and go public near March 1st, 2013.

9. City Council: The Official Positions

City council identified three areas of concern when it came to listing the area as a Superfund site. While city council does take into consideration the health effects, they are also weighing the potential economic and political ramifications. 

Councilman Chris Kaufman spoke strongly on the economic issue. From his experience with transfers of property titles in the neighborhoods EPA calls hotspots for high contamination, Kaufman made clear, Superfund designation would diminish the reputations of those areas.

Kaufman added the EPA “is making a mountain out of a molehill” and more pointedly, “There is verifiable proof from CSU-Pueblo professors that there is no lead poisoning” and because “there are no hard stats from anybody,” city council is not behind a cleanup.

City Council President Steve Nawrocki deferred to Councilwoman Sandy Daff, whose district is home to the Colorado Smelter site and Bessemer and Eilers neighborhoods, when asked for his official position on the possibility of a NPL for these areas.

With health concerns of her constituents on her mind, Daff sees both sides of the Colorado Smelter contamination issue, and articulates the second and third points of objection City Council maintains with EPA, the political and the public health arguments.

Daff admitted her first reaction to the 2010 EPA study showing dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic around the site of the Colorado Smelter was “We need to take care of it.” She sympathized with the public health concerns posed by the research.

At the same time, Daff worried, if city council moved ahead with supporting listing the area on the NPL, “Who knows if we would ever fall off that list?”  

“Who wants to invest in that neighborhood?” said Daff, referring to the future of the  area being deemed a Superfund  site. 

She understood that city council and the EPA are in the situation together and motivated by the same cause, public safety; but much of Daff’s frustration was with EPA’s process itself.  She expressed concerns going forward with listing the Colorado Smelter area on the NPL when in her opinion the city doesn’t have proof the site is contaminated. 

Daff poses the question, why should city council agree to move forward with a federal-scale remediation process when the kind of explicit evidence the council wants will not be gathered or given to them until they agree to hand over their project-managing power over to the federal government?

What Daff concluded could move City Council to act in supporting a NPL listing is more community outreach from the EPA and more third party analysis from scientists like Moussa Diawara from CSU-Pueblo.  

Councilman Chris Nicoll echoed Daff’s desire for more third party analysis, more federal research money, and frustration with the EPA Superfund process.  

“We [City Council] are concerned about putting the cart before the horse, but if we could get the EPA to present conclusive data, I would support cleanup,” Nicoll said. 

Eva Montoya and Ami Nawrocki could not be reached for comment. 

As it stands now, Council President Steve Nawrocki has deferred to the position of Sandy Daff, “The area is in her district… she will represent our [Pueblo City Council] current thoughts on this.” Sandy Daff requests more third party analysis, more community involvement, and disagrees with the EPA Superfund process.  Chris Nicoll would like to see more federal research money as well as conclusive evidence of contamination before supporting a cleanup. And Chris Kaufman is opposed to the Superfund designation for economic reasons.

10. CDPHE and Pueblo County Health Department: The Physician’s Dilemma

The voices of the health care leaders face the reality that it may be impossible to provide city officials and community members with irrefutable proof that there are cases of Puebloans sick with symptoms characteristic of lead and arsenic, and also, associated with pollution from the Colorado Smelter.

Where local and federal government disagrees on the health risks posed and studies cannot provide irrefutable evidence of health risks to the community, the message coming from state and local public health leaders is clear and consistent.

Janine Natterman, CDPHE Public Information Officer, communicated plainly, “We know from the data that lead and arsenic levels (in the soil around the Colorado Smelter) are high enough to make it a Superfund area.”

Dr. Christine Nevin-Woods, Director of the Pueblo County Health Department, similarly expressed, “I know there is concern that there isn’t good enough data (that exists studying the issue of contamination from the Colorado Smelter) but we have the best scientists from EPA, and they are saying they are very concerned.  So why can’t we trust their judgment on this?”

As a physician, Nevin-Woods added, with regard to the difficulty of diagnosing lead and arsenic poisoning, if she had a patient who lived in a lead and arsenic hotspot neighborhood that approached her with high blood pressure, her first reaction is not to say, oh, I think the symptoms are caused by lead and arsenic, because those symptoms are so prevalent anyway.  Also the outcomes of lead and arsenic exposures are not so rare that it would be easy to study.  

Natterman emphasized the point that with the data available the EPA, CDPHE and the city have “Guilty Knowledge” of environmental contamination at levels dangerous to public health.

“The burden is on us” said Nevin-Woods; “the community leaders, state health, Pueblo County Health Department, and EPA need to do a better job  explaining the situation because we know it is dangerous.”

The CDPHE’s prescription for moving forward on the issue is summarized in Natterman’s assertion that getting the Colorado Smelter listed as a Superfund site is the next step, so more money can be used to determine how to remediate the area.

Nevin-Woods confided leaders in public health have not clearly explained the situation in a way that the average person understands the risk.  She claimed there is scientific evidence of the dangers of arsenic and lead contamination and there is evidence of contamination in the soil in around the site. 

“It’s in the soil; it can cause disease. So, let’s clean it up.” said Dr. Nevin-Woods.

11. What’s next

A sinister orange sludge lines the Santa Fe Avenue Bridge Culvert.  The concrete from culvert to the river’s edge is damp and stained from decades of seepage.  The culvert releases a steady flow of a peculiar smelling polychromatic discharge through cracks in the eroded concrete that soon reappears as a cancerous cloud in the Arkansas River.

The infamous culvert, the little landmark that started all the controversy, a living example of the pollution problem Pueblo refuses to face, with the word “COPE” tagged in bubble letters on the mural above it, remains hidden in plain sight.

The site remains the same as it did from the beginning, almost as a metaphor to the progress made over the debate of what should happen next.

It is difficult to know what the next step will be for these neighborhoods on Pueblo’s south-side. Will there be another proposal in April, the next time the EPA can propose a clean up? Do economic risks outweigh the health risks? Will another study persuade city council to send a letter to the Governor?

The next occasion the issue of contamination from the Colorado Smelter will be discussed will be held on February 21, 2013 at St. Mary’s Church in Bessemer. Members of EPA will make themselves available for questions and concerns on the issue and to promote public awareness around the issue.  

Matthew Ramirez can be contacted at matt@pueblopulp.com or Kara Mason at kmason@pueblopulp.com.


[laterpay_subscription_purchase id="5" button_text="Join! Only $5 monthly" button_text_color="#ffffff" ]
[laterpay_subscription_purchase id="4" button_text="Join! $50 the full year" button_text_color="#ffffff" ]

[laterpay_contribution name="Support PULP Storytellers" thank_you="" type="multiple" custom_amount="0" all_amounts="300,500,700,1000,2500" all_revenues="sis,sis,sis,sis,sis" selected_amount="1" dialog_header="Support the Storytellers" dialog_description="support = voice"]