A proposed cleanup of the old downtown smelter site cleared a crucial hurdle recently when Environmental Protection Agency officials received the remaining signatures needed to complete an EPA consent decree.

But delays in obtaining those signatures have bumped the timeline for beginning the environmental cleanup from July 1 to either late July or early August.Matt Cohn, an EPA attorney in Denver, said last week the decree, an agreement outlining the role and responsibilities of all parties involved with the smelter cleanup, will be lodged in the U.S. District Court for Utah this week at the latest.

That will trigger a 30-day public comment period. The EPA then will have about two weeks after that to review any comments, a process that must be completed before the property titles are transferred to developers and the clean-up contactor can begin work.

If there is any opposition to the decree, Cohn said the cleanup could be delayed again while the EPA makes a second determination of whether the agreement is in the public's interest.

But city officials expect the decree will go unopposed, which would mean work could get under way as early as late July.

Meantime, the pace is getting frenetic at City Hall as staff workers race to complete critical documents and prepare information packets for the June 23 special election to determine whether local residents are willing to bond to refurbish the chimneys.

That information will be mailed out this Friday, but one important element may be lacking. The city is still waiting for a contamination report on the stacks by a Colorado-based engineering firm.

That information is critical to the bond election because, depending on the amount of contamination found, those studies will help determine a range of costs for either preserving or demolishing the historic chimneys.

City officials are also concerned that companies occupying properties at the smelter site had not moved by the April 1 deadline established last year.

To accelerate the process, Murray City paid $200,000 in early 1997 to a land trust held by certain Buehner family members who own most of the properties there.

In addition to the $200,000, which was earmarked for relocation assistance, the city also agreed to give the land trust a $100,000 credit for future curb and gutter improvement assessments required for the site.

But since the deadline was not met, the City Council met in executive session Tuesday to discuss whether the city needs to take legal action to reclaim all or part of the $200,000 that was advanced.

City Attorney Frank Nakamura said Tuesday the council has no plans at this point to sue any of the smelter site occupants.

Mayor Dan Snarr said the land trust principals are agreeable to returning some of the money since the companies continued to occupy the site after April 1.

But he said the amount of that reimbursement is still being negotiated with Buehner family members and their attorney.

Nakamura said the companies on the site are now facing an Aug. 1 deadline to move out.

A cleanup contractor hired by the American Smelter and Refining Co. plans to be on the site and begin mobilizing for the project in late July or early August, barring a challenge to the consent decree.