The Sharon Steel mill has been closed since 1971, standing as a monument to the way things used to be in Midvale when smelting and mining were the mainstays of Utah's economy.
Millions of tons of zinc, iron, lead and copper moved through the smelter, the second-largest in the nation during the early 1900s. But a federal lawsuit filed over the smoke and sulfur oxide from four smelters in Midvale and Murray brought large-scale ore production to an end.The smelter was owned by United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Co. from 1905 to 1971. Sharon Steel Corp. bought the mill in 1979, and in 1982 environmental samples showed excess levels of lead, considered a hazardous material.
Now, 82 years after the first lawsuit, 14 million tons of toxic tailings at Sharon Steel wait to be removed. Sharon Steel is bankrupt. And Midvale Mayor Everett Dahl wonders when it will happen.
"We're supposed to receive, probably in April, the recommendation for remedy - to haul it away or forget about it," said Dahl, who maintains any economic development in Midvale depends on removing the slag and tailings.
"The biggest problem we have is cleaning up our hazardous waste."
Jim Martin, a hydrogeologist with the Utah Health Department, is going to Denver April 23 to discuss what the Environmental Protection Agency will include in the feasibility study on the cleanup effort.
A feasibility study is "kind of a brainstorm for all the possible ideas," said Martin. "It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous."
Public hearings will be scheduled this spring about the potential solutions. A record of a decision endorsing one idea will be made public in the fall, and more hearings will be held on that proposal. Martin said work to stabilize or remove the tailings could begin in 1990.
The tab for relocating the tailings as was done with the Vitro mess would run from $1 billion to $1.9 billion, "which is a bunch of money," said Dahl. And relocation would take up to a decade.
By comparison, the Vitro Chemical Co. tailings on 33rd South and Fifth West were a snap to remove. It took three years and about $50 million to clean up 3 million tons of tailings from the old uranium mill.
"We've got between three and four times more tailings, and its under a more stringent framework" than the Vitro site, said Martin.
Yet the smelter site sits stewing as the EPA finishes studying what should be done. The 1,200-acre site is on the National Priorities List, more commonly called Superfund, for cleanup. It is among about 35 Superfund sites in the Mountain West.
"It would seem that they have been just dragging their feet," said Rep. Jed Wasden, R-Midvale. "I guess funding has been the real problem.
"We have to remove that problem, especially with the wind blowing" contaminated dust through Midvale neighborhoods, said Wasden.
The EPA filed suite in U.S. District Court in February, asking that Sharon Steel Corp. and seven other companies be held legally and financially responsible for health and environmental problems related to the trash.
A 1988 sampling of tailings blown from the site found elevated levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc and chromium. Groundwater beneath the site also had high lead concentrations.
The contaminants lie on about 260 acres just south of 78th South and east of the Jordan River, and the area was fenced off for the public's protection. But dust can get through the chain links.
Sharon Steel has attempted to reduce the amount of dust blowing from the site by seeding the area and soaking tailings.
But the site that has sat vacant for 18 years has sat for four years on the EPA's Superfund list while commissions and studies try to determine how best to handle it.
The EPA has said it would cost $16 million for stabilization. Utah's share would be $1.6 million. Reclamation is a cheaper alternative. But not as cheap as the "do nothing" alternative the federal agency is required to examine.
"We're following the process we go through under Superfund," said Kelsey Land with the EPA's Denver Regional Office, adding, "It's a very long and detailed planning process. Sometimes it can be a health problem that may make a site get funding more quickly."
Funding, as always, is at the whim of Congress and could be the victim of politics.
Midvale and West Jordan are counting on the proposed 72nd South highway to bring in development. "As that develops, that whole area must be secured," said Wasden. "If we're going to get business in there, it has to be secured."