EUREKA — Halfway down Eureka's Main Street, near a gold rush-era cabin and across from a skeletal storefront that once housed a J.C. Penney store in 1907, Sharon Brewer sits in her consignment shop and eyes the stranger who just stepped through the door.
Outsiders stick out like a sore thumb in this almost-abandoned mining town. It's isolated, rimmed by a shield of mountains, and its residents prefer the solitude. When the Environmental Protection Agency flew in from Colorado in 2000 and informed the town it had a lead problem, the agency didn't stand a chance at blending in.
"When the EPA first got here, (the town) was hostile," Brewer says as she drives down the street, past the old mining head frames that started appearing in the late 1800s and still stand today. "My kids, excuse my French, but all you ever heard was, 'The effin' EPA; there's the effin' EPA.' If we still had a coffee shop, you'd have had an earful."
At one time, Eureka was a bustling town with prosperous gold and silver mines and a population of almost 4,000 in 1920. Ninety years later, the population has dwindled to 800 and the mines have all closed, leaving behind their legacy — and tons of tailings with lead and arsenic scattered across every hillside, lawn and playground. The EPA has since tackled the contamination by adding Eureka to its list of most polluted sites in America and declared its soil clean, but the town's lingering resentment of EPA's involvement, a disconnect between the cleaning process and long-term health studies and a less-than permanent solution are representative of a growing problem with Superfund sites across the country. The Superfund program — established to repair America's toxic landscapes and manage human exposure — might itself need to be fixed, experts say, or it will leave its own sordid legacy.
At one time, the town of Eureka (pronounced by locals as "Eur-ick-a") was on the short list to becoming the capitol of Utah. The wild success of a rash of mines producing gold and silver in the Tintic Mining District in 1869 spurred a rush to the town, where people dug shacks out of the mountainside and slept with rattlesnakes just to be close to their prospects.
Eureka's permanent dwellings evolved out of that proximity, so when the mines exhausted their resources and closed their doors in 1965, it was common to have homes and mines so close together it was almost hard to see where one ended and the other began. Piles of crushed rock left over after the gold and silver had been removed — tailings — were heaped across the town, blown by the wind, and scattered by erosion. In some cases, the tailings, rich in lead and arsenic, were used to stabilize foundations on the steep hillside.
When the Utah Health Department did tests on residents' blood in 2000 to see how high their lead levels were, the EPA was stunned, and they hadn't even started testing the ground yet.
"The amount of lead, and the kind of lead they were taking in, it was very absorbable — the body was absorbing most of the lead," said Paula Schmittdiel, EPA project manager for the site. "There was an extremely high risk for almost 100 percent of the children. Those are the things that just really get EPA's heart pumping. We look at it going, my gosh, we have some serious problems here."
Out of 18 children, 11 had blood-lead levels in the danger zone above 10 micrograms per deciliter in their system, and it wasn't just young children that more commonly put their hands in their mouths or chew on toys. It was older boys, too, 8 and 9 years old, even up to 17 years old, who had high lead levels because they regularly rode ATVs in the tailings piles.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, children who swallow large amounts of lead can develop anemia, have their growth stunted, or suffer damage to their brain and kidneys. Studies acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say impacts on children can begin at 2 mg/dl. But the problem with this kind of lead is that it is absorbed into bones, teeth, the brain and other organs, and it never leaves. In adults, lead poisoning can affect the central nervous system, cause weakness in joints or miscarriage in pregnant women.
The EPA found such high levels of lead around the town that every residence, except for two belonging to homeowners who refused EPA access, was treated by removing 18 inches of the soil, then replacing it with clay, road base or soil. The piles next to the mine sites were left in place, re-graded and covered with 18 inches of rocks and boulders to keep the tailings from blowing.
The residential project, completed in 2010 for $78.5 million, was ahead of schedule and under budget, Schmittdiel said, but while those statements are good news for the EPA, they are a source of contention for Superfund watchdogs across the country.
Superfund sites are Lois Gibbs' favorite thing to talk about, ever since she organized a neighborhood group in 1978 to fight against the 20,000-ton lagoon of toxic chemicals seeping under her children's elementary school. The company responsible for the chemicals dismissed the problem, as did local and state officials, but ultimately, President Jimmy Carter declared the Love Canal site in New York an emergency in 1980 and moved 833 families away from the area.
That same year, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act was created, and money was allocated to the Superfund to pay for the EPA to clean up the most contaminated sites in the country.
The Love Canal was delisted in 2004, but Gibbs, who was nominated in 2003 for the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental efforts, says the horror isn't over. The chemicals at that site were contained, not cleaned, as is the case with many Superfund sites, including in Eureka, and Gibbs says that's a solution that may be less expensive, but it will have negative consequences in the long-term.
"Back in 1986, Congress passed some guidance; EPA was supposed to clean up sites with the best technology to work for a permanent cleanup," Gibbs says from her office at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Virginia. "Then they ran out of money. That was the intent of that, to clean it up permanently so you wouldn't have this legacy contamination left over to worry about. Now they are doing band-aid cleanups."
Gibbs points to the EPA's findings earlier this year of two sites in Virginia and Maryland that were de-listed, but upon continued inspection, are still contaminated.
Katherine Probst, a former senior fellow with Resources for the Future, a Washington D.C.-area think tank that focuses on environmental research, shares Gibbs' concern. In 1995, she testified before a U.S. Senate committee as the last of the money EPA used to clean Superfund sites circled the drain.
"There is heated debate about what we should be trying to accomplish at sites: is the goal to reduce exposure to current threats, to minimize the likelihood of future risk, to curtail the spread of contamination, or is it to restore sites and natural resources to an uncontaminated state—to 'clean them up?' " Probst asked the committee.
Now, after 25 years of studying the Superfund program, Probst says she has more concerns about the process and how it focuses on science, rather than health.
"If I lived near a site for 20 years and I had historical exposure, even if a site is cleaned up, it does nothing to address what I have been exposed to," Probst says over the phone on her day off. "There is nothing in the law that says … we're going to monitor these people's health. What is fascinating is, Superfund is divorced from public health. … I have defended Superfund when I have testified and spent my life trying to get it more money, but I'm not sure it's doing the right thing. Maybe it is, but it's not sufficient."
Back in Eureka, the EPA cleanup is somewhat the butt of a good-natured joke.
"They should call it Eu-ROCK-a," one resident said about the boulders used to cover the tailings piles.
"They should give us all flint-mobiles to get around in when (they) change the name of Eureka to Bedrock," another one panned.
Brewer refers to the "dirt police" and regulations instituted to manage the soil that was replaced.21 comments on this story
"Now we've got rules and regulations that we never had to have, you know?" she says. "We don't have any law — it takes 45 minutes for a county sheriff to get here sometimes — and you know, we've just kind of always done what we wanted to do."
That kind of change has been hard for residents, a majority of whom say the cleanup helped with the aesthetics of some people's homes but overall it wasn't necessary. A bigger concern is how to keep the town financially alive, now that they feel their historical reputation has been dimmed, but they are not alone in facing the specter of Superfund status.
"That, actually, is not unusual, especially at mine sites," Gibbs says. "I think a lot of that has to do with admitting that there is a problem, and your family is living in a problem. That is hard to do. That is really hard to do."