Guilty Knowledge: One Year Later

After almost two years of debate, community meetings and data collection, the Eiler’s neighborhood on Pueblo’s south side, near the site of the old Colorado Smelter, is finally being submitted to the National Priority List for elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other toxic contaminants.

City council was advised to send a letter to the governor requesting that the neighborhood be placed as an NPL site by Jan. 24. Though further testing requested by both the neighborhood and city council has not been published yet, City Councilwoman Sandy Daff, who represents the area, said it’s time to clean up.

The letter urged the governor’s approval, Daff said. It was unknown how long it would take for the governor to reply, Daff said the city wanted to guarantee they had enough time to receive the recommendations prior to the April list date.

“The site can be finalized in October 2014, but at proposal several other processes would begin at the same time because (the) EPA can begin to use some existing funding to begin what is called the Remedial Investigation.  It is important to note that getting community input will be part of all steps of the process,” said Sabrina Forrest, NPL coordinator for region 8 of the EPA.

Remedial investigation includes testing of the area for site conditions, determining the nature of the contaminant and addressing issues related to health and the environment.

A feasibility study is also done at this time, which is the development process of the cleanup.

Next, more community outreach is done. This is to educate the neighborhood on how to minimize exposure until the cleanup is complete, for example, washing hands, leaving dusty objects outside and frequent baths for kids and pets. There has also been talk about fencing and placing a sign around the slag pile stating there is hazardous material present.

“There would also be a compilation of existing data and data gap identification.  Detailed sampling plans would need to be developed to fill the data gaps, and those plans would be reviewed by the community too.  This data would help describe where site-related contamination is that needs to get cleaned up.  It would also explain where there are areas that do not need cleaning up,” Forest said.

It is likely this part of the process would take two to three years. Pam Kocman, a member of the Eiler Heights Neighborhood Association, said the community is urging a five-year timeline.

The NPL handbook states that 800 homes can be cleaned up per year, so Kocman said she has no reason to believe it should take more than five years for the entire process.

When Kocman started researching the process, she said the timeline was a scary aspect of listing. She and her neighbors were worried about job continuation that would keep the project going. To alleviate their worry, a citizen advisory board has been created, and nearly 20 of her neighbors have said they want to take part in it.

When the initial evidence from the Environmental Protection Agency was brought to city council’s attention, Daff said she was shocked, but since receiving that data, the city has been hesitant to list the neighborhood.

City council collectively said their reason for being hesitant was the evidence. While it was present, the data wasn’t conclusive enough.

In 2006, Professor of Biology Moussa Diawara sampled 33 sites across Pueblo. All 68 samples taken exceeded the carcinogen levels. However, Diawara concluded that further testing should be done, which would highlight the hotspots.

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and the EPA took samples from around the Bessemer neighborhood: 47 residential lots, three vacant lots and a frontage road near the old smelter site. Their findings concluded that lead levels were three times the average level for lead in Pueblo, and more importantly, the EPA had shown levels that met the numbers that proved the neighborhood could be listed.

Those elevated levels introduced a lot of fear words, said David Balsick of the Bessemer Association of Neighborhood Development. They brought up words like “cancer” and “toxic.”

He, along with a lot of other people, still doesn’t believe there’s reason for cleanup.

“I believe somebody has yelled fire in the theater without seeing the fire,” Balsick said. He explained that people have grown up and lived in the neighborhood, and they aren’t sick and they don’t have cancer.

Recently, however, Daff said she saw a shift of opinion from the people living in the area.

“More people were saying fix it than fight it,” she said. An additional study from Diawara found that residents in the neighborhood were twice as likely to have elevated levels.

After meeting a man in the neighborhood with a child with levels of just below 4.5, the toxic level, Daff said she’d made up her mind about the clean up. It had to happen.

Though the EPA can only take care of the exterior of the home, Kocman and Daff both said it was decided that if a clean-up was going to happen, they were going to clean the interiors too.

The city is currently working with Housing and Urban Development to find money to help fund that separate process, which can include replacing pipes and walls covered in toxic lead paint.

“I’m proud of the residents. We are coming together and we’re going to make sure it’s done right,” said Kocman. She, along with Daff, said the biggest concern was the children’s health; that’s why it was decided to take care of both the inside and outside of each home.

They made it clear they do not want a recontamination.

It is still unclear how much it will cost to rid the inside of homes of any contaminants, but the price tag on the exterior and soil is around $20 million, Daff said.

All agreed delving into the NPL process has been a lot of work and has taken a lot of time, but they don’t regret any of it. They said they wanted to do it right and not rush into something they weren’t 100 percent certain about.

The three say they are putting their trust in the EPA to do what’s right for the neighborhood.

“We won’t be disappointed if they live up to our expectations,” Balsick said.

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