SILVERTON – The Environmental Protection Agency is asking Silverton for permission to test the soil in the town’s parks, streets and schoolyard to determine if the small town suffers from widespread contamination with heavy metals from years of mining activity.
And EPA officials suggested that if problems are found in the soil, further testing may be needed, along with possible mitigation work on residential lawns and even possible health monitoring of the town’s children.
But agency officials got a cool reception from Town Hall, with some council members questioning why they should go along with the testing program.
And school Superintendent Kim White said the Silverton School grounds were thoroughly tested for metals and other contamination in 2010, and no problems were found.
EPA project manager Paula Schmittdiel on Monday told Silverton officials: “We thought it would be prudent to investigate if there were elevated levels of metals in the soils in and around Silverton.”
Schmittdiel was accompanied by Cynthia Peterson, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator, and Steve Wharton, head of a CERCLA (Superfund) response team.
Schmittdiel pointed to the contamination found at the Walsh smelter site during the cleanup of that county-owned property on Silverton’s south side from 2007 to 2009.
“There were some extremely high levels of contamination in the surface soils at that site,” Schmittdiel said, including high levels of arsenic.
She said the EPA is worried that metals contamination may have spread through residential areas of town.
“One of the reasons we think it could be a concern is that Silverton is in the heart of a historic mining district. There is a history of smelting,” Schmittdiel said. “Our experience at a number of historic mining sites across the West is that even with short-term smelting operations, there often is widespread soil contamination in the community.”
Schmittdiel pointed to other indications of potential problems.
A state sampling of Silverton’s historic district area in 1999 found one specimen with a lead concentration of 1,840 parts per million.
“That’s fairly high,” Schmittdiel said, but she acknowledged “it’s not a lot of data.”
Environmental officials like to see lead levels in soil below 400 ppm.
EPA officials distributed aerial imagery, enhanced to highlight areas of mineralization, with the town’s streets illuminated.
“The streets are showing heavy mineralization,” Schmittdiel said.
Why be concerned about metals in the town’s soil?
Schmittdiel said exposure to high levels of lead often are associated with neurological defects in children or decreases in IQ or attention span. And she said arsenic exposure is associated with health impacts. Other heavy metals also may lurk in the soil.
“Children are the main concern because of their habits,” Schmittdiel said. “They tend to be playing in the dirt and sand, and there’s potential for children to ingest even small amounts of heavy metals in soil.
“What we’re requesting or wanting to discuss with the town is the possibility of doing some sampling in town,” Schmittdiel said. “What we could learn is whether or not this is a problem. If there isn’t contamination, everyone can breathe easier, and if there is, we would like to work with the community to address that.”
She suggested the testing program could start with the town’s parks, streets and schoolyard “and then take it from there.”
The EPA then would “report back to you before we go further and discuss what our next steps would be.”
But she said among the next steps could be testing of soils from residential lawns in town.
Why 15-year gap?
Town Trustee Larry Gallegos said he appreciated the EPA’s concern, but he pointed out that among the handouts given to bolster their case for the need for soil testing was a report from 1999 on two samples.
“What took you 15 years to raise that concern?” he asked.
He said it was odd that the EPA now is suggesting there is an imminent threat to the health of the town’s children.
“If one of my girls were screaming that she was being attacked by a coyote, I don’t tell her to come back in 15 years,” Gallegos said.
And Trustee Karla Safranski asked what happens if the tests show a problem with someone’s property.
“The EPA can take action,” Schmittdiel said. “We want to do enough sampling to figure out where the sources are coming from.”
She added that “in many communities, we’ve excavated 10 to 18 inches on a property and replaced it with clean soil.”
She said the EPA would not disturb paved driveways since they are capped and would re-sod disturbed areas.
Superfund still possible
And EPA officials indicated that if property owners refuse to go along with mitigation, it could be “recorded in the county records office” that the property may require environmental mitigation.
“Are you folks letting us know you’re pursuing Superfund?” asked Trustee Pete Maisel.
“That’s still a point of discussion,” Schmittdiel said.
EPA officials said there is funding available from a settlement with mining company ASARCO, and Sunnyside Gold Corp. has agreed to participate in cleanup efforts under some conditions. But it may not be enough.
Wharton said, “In order to do large-scale remediation projects, we have to pursue another pot of money.”
Trustee Malcolm MacDougall expressed concern the EPA could declare a problem exists but not find funding for 20 years.
“How does that affect our economy? The time from noticing a problem and fixing it is very important,” he said.
EPA officials expressed confidence that funding for any cleanup needed could be obtained and that should not inhibit investigations into the problem.
“The fact is that our mission is to protect human health and the environment and not to stick our heads in the sand and not look,” Wharton said.
Trustee David Zanoni asked the EPA officials what would happen if the town refuses to grant permission for the soils testing. He worried about potential liability.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” Schmittdiel said. “We’d still feel it’s a concern, but it’d be nice to have a consensus or at least an agreement.”
But Zanoni suggested consensus may be hard to reach in this case, considering what’s at stake.
“This community is 100 percent based on tourism,” Zanoni said. “They don’t read the whole article – just the headline. I don’t even want to think about tagging the word ‘Superfund’ with Silverton. To me, that’s just a knife in our economy.”
“It doesn’t have to be the end of tourism,” Schmittdiel said, suggesting the agency could “work with the press.”
Mayor Chris Tookey, too, expressed skepticism – and aggravation – over the EPA’s presentation.
“Why now?” she asked. “And it would have been nice to be up front about the Superfund part. Me, personally, not as mayor, I kind of resent the way it was approached.”
Response in April
Tookey said the council will get back with the EPA in April about its request to do soil sampling on public property in town.
On Tuesday, school superintendent White, upon hearing of the EPA’s interest in testing soil on school grounds, said the ground had been gone over quite thoroughly before its huge 2010-11 rehabilitation project.
For their part, EPA officials said they are not singling out Silverton to the exclusion of other mining communities in the region.
“It isn’t just that we’re isolating Silverton; it’s part of looking at the whole watershed,” Schmittdiel said.
Mark Esper is editor of the Silverton Standard & The Miner. www.silvertonstandard.com.