Editor’s note: This story is the first Of what the Durango Herald plans to be many with a solutions focus. Solutions journalism is a growing practice in the media industry, and we see tremendous value in using a different lens when examining stories that have elements of success. You can read more about it in this editor’s column.
The Colorado Smelter processed silver and lead for 25 years before it closed in 1908, leaving behind a toxic footprint that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods of Pueblo in southeastern Colorado.
However, it wasn’t until more than a century later that an inspection found lead and arsenic levels posed a risk to residents. An early study area included more than 1,900 potentially affected homes.
The need for a cleanup project was clear, but the community of Pueblo was torn.
Some residents were truly worried about the health effects from lead and arsenic poisoning, while others felt the problem was overblown and a major cleanup project would further strain the community’s struggling economy.
With seemingly no other options, it became apparent the only true path to cleaning up this legacy of pollution was through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup project – Superfund.
One of the community’s demands from the outset was to have a seat at the table with the EPA and other partners at key moments of decision-making, so the community could guide that process from its perspective.
The people of Pueblo accomplished that by creating, through the EPA’s process, a Community Advisory Group made up of a variety of interested people, residents, landlords, environmental groups and locally elected officials.
“It’s a good process that can help citizens better understand the issues and then provide an avenue to give feedback,” said Terry Hart, a Pueblo County commissioner. “I’d highly encourage every community to tap into it.”
A Superfund was declared in 2014.
‘A need to get diverse interests together’The situation in Pueblo is eerily similar to Silverton’s and its connection to hard-rock mining, which defined the community a century ago but ultimately left behind a complicated mess.
The small mountain town north of Durango, with a population of about 600, largely opposed a Superfund listing for two decades, fearing it would deter future mining in the region and adversely affect tourism.
However, the path toward a Superfund designation became inevitable after the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill, when an EPA-caused mine blowout released a torrent of waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers, turning them orange.
One of the major selling points in getting Silverton’s support for the Superfund listing was a promise from the EPA that the community, filled with old miners with extensive institutional knowledge, would have a seat at the table.
Scott Fetchenheir, a geologist, former miner and San Juan County commissioner, said that since the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund was declared in fall 2016, the EPA has made good on this promise.
The EPA typically visits the region once a month to provide updates on its sampling and plans. While the EPA also holds meetings farther down the watershed in Durango and Farmington, the most focus, understandably, is on Silverton.
“This is ground zero,” Fetchenheir said. “This is our home, and we definitely want to help make those decisions. But the watershed is regionwide, and we want to think about downstream neighbors the whole time we’re doing this, too.”
Marcel Gaztambide with the San Juan Citizens Alliance feels that can be reconciled with a Community Advisory Group, which could bring together interests from Silverton down to Farmington and beyond into the Navajo Nation.
“There’s a need to get all the diverse interests together, and a CAG provides that platform,” he said. “The hope is to get down to the real concerns in the watershed and hear directly from what the citizens want.”
How CAGs workFor a CAG to be formed, a community simply needs to let EPA employees know they are interested in creating a group.
Then, it’s really up to the residents to decide how many people are in the group (the average CAG has about 15 people) and how often they want to meet.
“It’s community driven, and EPA wouldn’t want to influence how a CAG might organize or represent itself,” said Cynthia Peterson, an EPA spokeswoman who works with the Superfund site near Silverton.
Kristi Celico, an organizer and facilitator for CAGs throughout the country, says the groups are usually effective in walking the line of the variety of demands coming from a community.
“It helps put all those people in a room to help bridge those interests,” she said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but I’ve set up hundreds of (CAGs), and nine out of 10 times, it has a huge impact over time.”
Pueblo CountyPueblo County Commissioner Hart said despite differing views about the cleanup of the Colorado Smelter, the group was able to get consensus that the EPA needed to act quickly.
“We put a lot of pressure on EPA to speed it up,” Hart said. “And the EPA reacted to that and went through a process called an ‘interim record of decision,’ which allows them to start the cleanup much earlier.”
“We think it was a reaction to us promoting us like crazy,” he said.
Pam Kocman, a CAG member who lives in one of the impacted neighborhoods, said the group was especially effective when the EPA announced it would be conducting indoor dust testing in homes.
The kicker was that the EPA, if it found unsafe levels, wasn’t offering residents in the low-income neighborhood any money to clean up the contamination.
“They would just leave you high and dry and people wouldn’t be able to clean up their homes,” Kocman said.
So, the CAG got to work and put pressure on the EPA.
“We fought really hard for that, and now they’re paying for any cleanup that may be needed inside homes,” Kocman said.
Kocman’s husband, Joe, added that a CAG can set up subgroups to focus on specific issues. He led a subgroup that honed in on forming a plan to revitalize the neighborhood after the Superfund was complete.
“It’s amazing how they’ve listened to us,” he said.
Lincoln ParkSouth of Cañon City in Fremont County, the Lincoln Park site includes a 2,600-acre uranium mill, as well as surrounding areas of contamination, which were declared a Superfund site in 1984.
Carol Dunn, a business owner in the Lincoln Park area, said it took about three tries to set up a functional community group, which in the past was run by the mill’s owner, the Cotter Corp.
But in 2013, residents filed for an official CAG with the EPA and hired a facilitator through an EPA grant. Finally, it seemed as if the group was receiving good information, and in turn, giving good advice.
“EPA taking the reins gave us hope,” Dunn said. “It’s moving forward slowly, and it’s like watching paint dry, but it’s going to be done the right way.”
Through a CAG, the EPA offers a community a variety of possible grants. Dunn said they were able to hire a technical adviser to help analyze a project plan of the EPA’s and then give input.
Dunn said that enabled residents to see immediate action on a treatment wall in disrepair.
“We forced the issue, and they did it right,” she said. “The only voices that aren’t heard are the ones that don’t speak.”
Celico said that each community’s CAG is different and serves a specific purpose that’s right for them. But she undeniably recommends communities take advantage of all a CAG has to offer.
“It is a hard decision for a community, and I think it can be done well and I think it can be done terribly,” she said. “It is a challenge, and it’s not going to happen overnight. And it’s really important the CAG sets clear goals.”
Celico, the CAG facilitator, said the group was even able to go to the Governor’s Office and request to get all the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety staff members removed after the community was unhappy with their work.
“Alone, they would not have been able to do that,” Celico said.
Those interviewed for this story agreed that CAGs have limitations, but really only in instances when they request the EPA to work outside its mandated authority.
“A CAG can’t get around (the Superfund process), and it can be a slow and tedious process,” Dunn said. “People involved the CAG need to know it’s a long-term commitment.”
Local push for a CAGRebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, said a CAG is one of the many tools the EPA offers to share information with a broad cross section of community members.
The EPA doesn’t want to affect a CAG, so it allows the community to decide whether to form one, who its members are and if they chose to have EPA staff at its meetings.
“For Bonita Peak, there are so many stakeholders across so many communities and states … and community consensus is something taken seriously,” Thomas said.
There are a number of stakeholder groups up and down the watershed, yet there is no single community group that puts everyone together in the same room to discuss different goals of the Superfund cleanup.
Calls to the Navajo Nation were not returned for this story, and officials in New Mexico were unaware of the CAG process.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe did not “wish to respond to this inquiry” when asked to comment.
In Durango, several groups formed a “Citizens Superfund Workgroup,” which for the past six months has held informational meetings and even drafted a list of goals from its small set of attendees.
EPA’s Thomas said the agency takes into account all comments from the public, regardless of what form they come in. But many in the community feel the time has come to form a CAG as the official conduit between the watershed and EPA.
“From our perspective, a CAG is the best way to set up the infrastructure for long-term, substantive citizen engagement at the site. Ideally, a CAG would also allow for balanced input from our watershed’s diverse interests,” Gaztambide said. “In the absence of a mechanism for direct, long-term citizen engagement for all of the communities that depend on the Animas River, we’ll continue to advocate for a CAG and continue the discussions that we’ve been having.”
Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group who helped organize the Citizens Superfund Workgroup, said in light of the interest in forming a CAG, the EPA will give a presentation about it April 24.
“When the Superfund site was first listed, we were very concerned that because of the uproar over the Gold King Mine spill, a CAG would be used for political reasons as opposed to a citizens body working on the details of Superfund,” Butler said. “But now, I think, a lot of that has calmed down, and a CAG would work just fine.”