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 10:00 p.m. MDT

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.

"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."

EMAIL: achoate@desnews.com

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