Arthur DeVitalis, Peak to peak. Colorado and the rich mining history of its mountain towns meets the present, as officials prepare to begin investigating the piles of trash left behind by digging. Project leader Kyle Sandore, as part of the Clear Creek Superfund Site investigation, is working to help clean up heavy metals left over from the days of hard rock mining in the area. He says the 400 square mile survey area contains more than 500 potential piles, in which the EPA also plays a role in identifying and resolving problem locations.
“Our goal is to protect public health from exposure to high levels of heavy metals that may be left over from historic mining,” Sandore said. “Recent site assessments have indicated that some of the mining waste piles may pose an unacceptable risk due to heavy metals. We are currently determining the exact number of piles at these locations that may require cleaning during the investigation.
He talks about lead and arsenic as the main drivers of the project there, which often happens naturally. Other metals are also associated with historic mining in the region, which occurs naturally around gold deposits. After gold mines have been abandoned and evacuated, snowmelt, runoff and flooding can bring minerals to the surface, even after hard rock mining has not been active for decades. . “Superfund” is the common name for the law called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, or CERCLA.
Sandore works with Public Involvement Coordinator and Public Information Officer, Jeannine Natterman, who handles outreach and feedback related to the project as it continues. Sandore said assessments were initially conducted in 2015 and 2018, while Natterman said interviews were conducted with community members and local governments in 2021 about their concerns. A large part of the investigation involves analyzing the number of people moving into the Superfund site area and the proximity of personal property to the piles.
“It was part of that five-year review process, and as part of that, it was our own resource to find out how many people are actually coming to that area of the watershed,” Natterman said. “The whole workplace has changed, so people can work remotely a lot more. That was key to [saying], “Well, okay, now we know we have lots of trash in the area, and some of it might already have people building on it, they’ve built on it, or they’re planning to build.” We need to look at these piles of waste and make sure they are protective or not exposing people unnecessarily to the heavy metals they contain.
The Clear Creek watershed was designated as a Superfund site in 1983, and cleanup activities since have focused on protecting surface waters by cleaning up piles of mine waste. The objective is also to present the mobilization of heavy metals by rainy and snowy events. Operations began about four decades ago and continue to the present day. As for the actual townships, the watershed is about 30 miles west of Denver. The 400 square mile radius includes cities like Central City, Black Hawk, Idaho Springs, Empire, and Georgetown. The Colorado Gold Rush actually began in the Superfund site area of Idaho Springs in the mid-19e century.
The investigation will be completed by 2025, but the organizations involved are working to carry out an early clean-up of waste piles with high levels of toxicity and an immediate risk of exposure to them. It is worth saying that the goal of the CDPHE and the EPA is not to completely eliminate contamination. The overall goal is to reverse environmental damage, take action to prevent further pollution, and reduce existing levels of toxic materials in waste piles and water bodies to levels low enough not to affect negatively humans.
But why is the project personally important to Natterman and Sandore?
“I’m from Colorado, and I completely support and understand the historic nature of our mining country. It’s always been part of our mountain identity,” Natterman said. “What we’ve done is go to the really big problem areas and build water treatment plants so far. We’ll target the most important areas where people are most affected, and the [highest] chance for people to be exposed to these heavy metals. With the work at the state health department, it has become very important for us to understand what the effects of heavy metals are on children in particular, women of childbearing age and the elderly. So it’s very important to me.
“One of the things that I think is really important at these mine sites is being able to help the community that is directly impacted by this historic mining legacy,” Sandore said. “Our understanding of the impact of heavy metals on human health has really changed over the past 10 years. What we thought was an acceptable level of contamination to expose ourselves to is no longer the case. Going forward, we want to ensure that the work we do on site protects human health.
The next community outreach and feedback meeting will be held online via Zoom on Wednesday, August 3 from 6-7:30 p.m. Those interested in the public outreach portion of the project can also contact the Engagement Coordinator community Shannon Bauman at 303-692-3421. For more information on upcoming meetings, best practices for heavy metal exposure and project progress, please visit cdphe.colorado.gov/central-city-clear-creek.