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Amy Choate-Nielsen: The danger down below: In tiny town of Eureka, legacy of environmental abuse is lasting, and uncertain

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 10:40 p.m. MDT

Over a span of 10 years, the Environmental Protection Agency covered the hillsides and contaminated lands of Eureka with fields of rocks. The mining city was declared a Superfund site by the EPA and the cleanup began in 2001.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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.

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