Monday, August 19, 2013

Life in the wasteland: EUREKA, Utah

by Lolly Merrell

A small Utah town unearths a toxic legacy just as its only hope for rescue, the federal Superfund cleanup program, blows away

EUREKA, Utah - The mayor of Eureka, Utah, is hard to catch. I'm told that he drives a two-tone beige pickup, has a medium build, and at 60-some years old, is quick on his feet.

He's eluded me once already, near City Hall at the north end of town, where I saw a man with a flash of white hair leap into a truck and spin out of the parking lot as I pulled in.

"Beige truck?" asks Patricia Bigler, the city recorder who set up my meeting with Mayor Lloyd Conder. "Well, then, you just missed him." Bigler, a pleasant woman who looks like she's in her early 30s, writes down Conder's home address and points me up the hill. "He's hard to nail down sometimes," she warns.

Just above City Hall is a series of switchbacked dirt roads that cut up the steep hillsides framing Eureka's narrow main street. At the top of these gray, silty steppes are the remnants of the town's fame - burnished wood skeletons left over from the silver mines that once made Eureka one of the richest cities in the West. Around 1870, a cowboy named George Rust found a promising strike of silver in the valley. By 1910, the town's population had swelled to 8,000, mine shafts and headframes peppered the hills, and Eureka was the second largest silver-producing region in the world.

The mines have since shut down, the population has shrunk to just under 800, and Eureka is in bad shape. On the way to Mayor Conder's place are small miners' houses, some with florid Victorian details, most with peeling paint, a few with slumped, rotting porches. On one block there are six homes for sale. A block north of it, seven homes are for sale.

One block west, I hit a vein of houses with peculiar, immaculate, lime-green lawns, each enclosed in a sparkling new chain-link fence. Up the damp hillside, against a cold October sky, the yards connect to look like a long verdant smear on a burlap canvas. This is the telltale imprint of the Environmental Protection Agency's yard service.

In early September, Eureka became a Superfund site, a designation that marks it as one of the most polluted places in the country and puts it in line for federal cleanup funds. Managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Superfund program gives priority to places where toxic contamination poses "a dangerous and immediate threat" to human health. In Eureka, the contamination is so severe that the town landed on the EPA's version of critical care - the National Priorities List - along with 19 other sites across the country this year.

This summer, even before the town officially landed on the list, EPA-hired contractors came out to Eureka in full force, digging up yards, removing the top 18 inches of lead-saturated soil and replacing it with sod or gravel, a tree and a fence. But for now, a landscape makeover may be all Eureka gets. In July, the EPA revealed that the Superfund "trust fund" is nearly out of money. Originally, the fund was built from an excise tax on the chemical and oil industries, but Congress killed the tax in 1995. Since then, the fund has dwindled, increasingly supplemented with taxpayer money and fines paid by polluters.

If Superfund disappears entirely, Eureka and more than 1,200 other sites nationwide will be hung out to dry - which may be why Mayor Conder is so hard to find. He's made it clear in town meetings and editorials in the local paper that he doesn't want the EPA here. His town, he contends, doesn't want to be a Superfund site, and publicity that might broadcast its plight just makes life harder. On one level, he's right. The end of the program could leave Eureka scarred - left not only with a contaminated landscape and a population with dangerously high blood-lead levels, but also with its new, detested classification as a Superfund site - a stigma that could snuff out the economically embattled town for good.

A spotty history

The Superfund bill, officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, was spawned in 1978 by the controversy surrounding Love Canal, an upstate New York neighborhood built atop a chemical dump. As birth defects and cancers popped up with alarming regularity, the residents there had neither the legal knowledge nor the money to pursue the companies responsible for the contamination. So an EPA hazardous waste investigator named Hugh Kaufman proposed that Congress create a tax on industry to help clean up sites where polluters couldn't, or wouldn't, pay.

Signed into to law by President Carter in 1980, the fund collected $1.6 billion from the industrial "polluter tax" in its first year. The program also allowed the EPA to sue polluters, holding them liable for messes they left behind.

But as the list of contaminated sites grew, the contractors' bills skyrocketed, prompting Congress to again investigate. In 1989, a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., uncovered widespread fraud.

About two months later, Eureka became a Superfund site, with an estimated cleanup bill of $54 million.

Mysteries and mining

When I finally find Mayor Conder's address, a tidy home with an EPA yard, there's no truck there. So I turn down to Eureka's main street, pass a sooty gas station at the fringe of town and several blocks of abandoned storefronts, and park next to a souvenir shop called the Painted Lady. The beige truck is in the parking lot.

 "I don't mind the EPA here," he says, leaning back in his chair, when I ask him if he's happy about the cleanup. He admits that the town is divided. "But look around. I don't think it'll hurt anything - only help.
Eurekan's house and you'll likely find sketches of the town's landmark mining equipment framed and hanging on the walls. Even relative newcomers are literally living with the town's history: Every home in Eureka, including some constructed only two years ago, is built atop mine tailings.

But the town's loyalty was shaken a few years ago, after a nurse with the Utah Department of Health completed her routine rounds in the region's public schools. In Eureka, she found an alarming number of children medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. To her, there seemed only one explanation: lead poisoning, most likely from the mines.
The health department circulated fliers about voluntary lead testing, came back to the schools, and sampled about half of the kids. The youngest - from toddlers to elementary school age - tested high, with blood levels sometimes more than four times the limit established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, young kids are most affected by lead; they ingest dirt from their messy hands, they're closer to the ground, and since they're small, a little bit of lead has a big effect.

But in Eureka, the test also showed something unusual: An unexpected number of teenagers tested high as well. Soon after the blood tests, Steve Thiriot, a section manager with the CERCLA and Emergency Response Division of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, tested the soil in Eureka. "We struck the mother lode in terms of contamination," says Thiriot, who discovered that lead levels in some yards were well above 500 parts per million - more than twice the EPA limit.

Book published in 1953 by Ralph Richards, a medical doctor with the University of Utah. Richards reported that a high number of miners in the Eureka area died from causes now linked to lead poisoning - things like kidney failure, anemia, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Between the soil samples, the high blood-lead levels, and the historical evidence, Thiriot presented enough material to the EPA to warrant an emergency cleanup and qualify the town for Superfund listing. But Thiriot still couldn't explain the source of the lead contamination in the teenagers, and neither could Bert Garcia, the regional Superfund supervisor, who visited Eureka last year.

"We couldn't figure it out," says Garcia. "Then we looked around the hills and saw the obvious." Along the hillsides, thin roads loop up and over steep slopes and cut across ridges - trails where the teenagers ride four-wheelers and motorcycles. As they buzzed around the dirt in the hot, dry summers, the kids inhaled lead-contaminated dust from the tailings.
For the residents of Eureka, the idea that lead and arsenic - another contaminant found in high levels here - pervaded every part of the landscape, fueled either anxiety or rebellion.

 A few people simply reasoned that they grew up with lead and turned out fine, so what could happen to their kids? The mayor, I discover, shares this attitude. "People have lived here for 100 years and never had a problem with lead," says Conder, when I reach him on the phone. "The EPA has figured they're smarter than everyone else. Nobody here is worried about the lead - I don't really believe those tests. Only the EPA is worried about it. We think they're just picking on us."

More responsibility, less money

This year, Bert Garcia's regional department, which handles cleanups in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas, spent more than two-thirds of its $28 million Superfund budget on one site - Libby, Mont., where more than 200 deaths have been attributed to asbestos exposure from a local vermiculite mine (HCN, 4/23/01: Company leaves victims in its dust).

In response to Rep. Dingell's report, the EPA shifted $200 million left over from other projects to pay the initial costs of cleanup in Eureka and some of the 33 sites that the report identified as unfunded. But that kind of money is going to be hard to find in the future, says Kate Probst, a senior research fellow with Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank that has been watching Superfund nearly since its inception. "Clearly, they're in a logjam. My concern is that they'll clean up everything obvious and not get at the larger contamination."

"The local people are going to be managing the cleanup in the long term anyway," says Marianne Deppman, with the Region 10 EPA office. Some groups are opposed to localizing the cleanup, she says, because they think that the Superfund program works within a more stringent set of guidelines. "They just want to make sure that it isn't going to be a lesser cleanup," Deppman adds, "and we think that we can do that."

But critics say the states aren't qualified to handle Superfund-level cleanups. "As far as Coeur d'Alene goes, it's a bad trend to get into," says Jessica Frohman of the Sierra Club, which has been fighting the Coeur d'Alene commission and lobbying for full Superfund listing in the basin. "The states don't have the resources, the funds or the initiative to do it."

Probst adds that, in the end, local cleanups can often cost more money. "Usually (local cleanups) languish, and eventually get put on the National Priorities List," she says.

Bigler and I talk about blood-lead testing in children. I tell her that the CDC is considering lowering the acceptable blood-lead levels.

In other words, lead may be even more dangerous than previously thought. She tells me her daughter had three tests over the last year, with wildly divergent results.

She also tells me that her daughter is undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer.

I look back down at the last page of the pamphlet, which concludes: "EPA's Superfund Program is the most aggressive hazardous waste cleanup program in the world."

Lolly Merrell is senior editor for High Country News.