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for people who care about the West

Life in the wasteland

A small Utah town unearths a toxic legacy just as its only hope for rescue, the federal Superfund cleanup program, blows away

 

EUREKA, Utah - The mayor of Eureka, Utah, is hard to catch. I'm told that he drives a two-tone beige pickup, has a medium build, and at 60-some years old, is quick on his feet.

He's eluded me once already, near City Hall at the north end of town, where I saw a man with a flash of white hair leap into a truck and spin out of the parking lot as I pulled in.

"Beige truck?" asks Patricia Bigler, the city recorder who set up my meeting with Mayor Lloyd Conder. "Well, then, you just missed him." Bigler, a pleasant woman who looks like she's in her early 30s, writes down Conder's home address and points me up the hill. "He's hard to nail down sometimes," she warns.

Just above City Hall is a series of switchbacked dirt roads that cut up the steep hillsides framing Eureka's narrow main street. At the top of these gray, silty steppes are the remnants of the town's fame - burnished wood skeletons left over from the silver mines that once made Eureka one of the richest cities in the West. Around 1870, a cowboy named George Rust found a promising strike of silver in the valley. By 1910, the town's population had swelled to 8,000, mine shafts and headframes peppered the hills, and Eureka was the second largest silver-producing region in the world.

The mines have since shut down, the population has shrunk to just under 800, and Eureka is in bad shape. On the way to Mayor Conder's place are small miners' houses, some with florid Victorian details, most with peeling paint, a few with slumped, rotting porches. On one block there are six homes for sale. A block north of it, seven homes are for sale.

One block west, I hit a vein of houses with peculiar, immaculate, lime-green lawns, each enclosed in a sparkling new chain-link fence. Up the damp hillside, against a cold October sky, the yards connect to look like a long verdant smear on a burlap canvas. This is the telltale imprint of the Environmental Protection Agency's yard service.

In early September, Eureka became a Superfund site, a designation that marks it as one of the most polluted places in the country and puts it in line for federal cleanup funds. Managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Superfund program gives priority to places where toxic contamination poses "a dangerous and immediate threat" to human health. In Eureka, the contamination is so severe that the town landed on the EPA's version of critical care - the National Priorities List - along with 19 other sites across the country this year.

This summer, even before the town officially landed on the list, EPA-hired contractors came out to Eureka in full force, digging up yards, removing the top 18 inches of lead-saturated soil and replacing it with sod or gravel, a tree and a fence. But for now, a landscape makeover may be all Eureka gets. In July, the EPA revealed that the Superfund "trust fund" is nearly out of money. Originally, the fund was built from an excise tax on the chemical and oil industries, but Congress killed the tax in 1995. Since then, the fund has dwindled, increasingly supplemented with taxpayer money and fines paid by polluters.

But under the Bush administration, contributions from the general tax fund have been cut, and fewer polluters are paying fines. This year, the program has received only half the total amount of money the EPA regional offices needed to complete cleanups. The Bush administration has been quietly weakening the program in other, more subtle ways. While there are currently two bills sponsored in the Senate to reinstate the "polluter tax," they have little chance of success.

If Superfund disappears entirely, Eureka and more than 1,200 other sites nationwide will be hung out to dry - which may be why Mayor Conder is so hard to find. He's made it clear in town meetings and editorials in the local paper that he doesn't want the EPA here. His town, he contends, doesn't want to be a Superfund site, and publicity that might broadcast its plight just makes life harder. On one level, he's right. The end of the program could leave Eureka scarred - left not only with a contaminated landscape and a population with dangerously high blood-lead levels, but also with its new, detested classification as a Superfund site - a stigma that could snuff out the economically embattled town for good.

A spotty history

The Superfund bill, officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, was spawned in 1978 by the controversy surrounding Love Canal, an upstate New York neighborhood built atop a chemical dump. As birth defects and cancers popped up with alarming regularity, the residents there had neither the legal knowledge nor the money to pursue the companies responsible for the contamination. So an EPA hazardous waste investigator named Hugh Kaufman proposed that Congress create a tax on industry to help clean up sites where polluters couldn't, or wouldn't, pay.

Signed into to law by President Carter in 1980, the fund collected $1.6 billion from the industrial "polluter tax" in its first year. The program also allowed the EPA to sue polluters, holding them liable for messes they left behind.

While Superfund offered help for a number of communities, the program also earned a reputation more typical of an unchecked Russian oligarchy, marked by dubious accounting, manipulative private contractors and self-interested politicians controlled by big industry.

Near the end of President Reagan's first term in office, critics accused the EPA of cozying up to the companies it was meant to police. In 1983, several congressional investigations ensued, eventually resulting in the firing of 22 EPA officials and the arrest and imprisonment of then Superfund Director Rita Lavelle. Reagan appointed new leadership at both the EPA and Superfund, created a Superfund "ombudsman" to act as a watchdog over the program, and directed the EPA to hire private contractors to speed up the cleanups.

But as the list of contaminated sites grew, the contractors' bills skyrocketed, prompting Congress to again investigate. In 1989, a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., uncovered widespread fraud. The subcommittee found that one company regularly marked up its equipment by more than 400 percent, and charged the EPA for an executive's fishing trip to Alaska, $16 million in employee bonuses, and a reindeer suit for a Christmas party. By the beginning of 1995, the EPA had cleaned up only 285 National Priorities List sites in almost 15 years, at a cost of nearly $30 billion. The Republican-controlled Congress voted against reinstating the polluter tax, scoring a victory for industry and a blow to citizens looking for a way to clean up their communities (HCN, 9/4/95: U.S. House to the environment: Die!). Under the Clinton administration, despite a shrinking trust fund, the EPA completed cleanup on 475 priorities list sites over the next five years. But each year, Democrat-sponsored bills to reinstate the polluter tax and replenish the Superfund trust failed in Congress.

Last year, under the Bush administration, the Superfund program completed only 48 priorities list projects. The trust fund was dwindling, and regional offices were starting to complain that they hadn't received their requested cleanup money. The agency was also being less aggressive in pursuing polluters. This November, researchers working with newspaper publisher Knight Ridder reported that polluters have paid 64 percent less under Bush than they did when Clinton was president.

Enter a familiar name: John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who uncovered Superfund fraud in the 1980s, and is now a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. This June, Dingell, along with Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., demanded that the EPA's inspector general produce a report on the status of every Superfund site in the country. The July report revealed that Superfund was $225 million short of its budget. Dingell estimated that the trust fund would dwindle to $28 million next year and disappear completely by 2004, making the Superfund program entirely reliant on taxpayer dollars.

About two months later, Eureka became a Superfund site, with an estimated cleanup bill of $54 million.

Mysteries and mining

When I finally find Mayor Conder's address, a tidy home with an EPA yard, there's no truck there. So I turn down to Eureka's main street, pass a sooty gas station at the fringe of town and several blocks of abandoned storefronts, and park next to a souvenir shop called the Painted Lady. The beige truck is in the parking lot.

Inside the store, the walls are decorated with archival photographs of better times in Eureka, when the town had a brothel, a gambling hall, a few theaters, and a number of churches to counter its sins. In the middle of it all sits a large man in overalls, who introduces himself as Lyman Davis.

"I don't mind the EPA here," he says, leaning back in his chair, when I ask him if he's happy about the cleanup. He admits that the town is divided. "But look around. I don't think it'll hurt anything - only help.

"The one thing I don't like," he says, leaning forward, "is those damn shiny fences. They took away all that great barbed wire." To be sure, the ghost-town aesthetic is diminished by the glistening new yards.

I buy a few photographs, and Davis reveals that the mayor is across the street, in an arcade run by a friend.

I walk quickly out of the store, past a couple of kids loitering barefoot in the 45 degree afternoon, and enter a cavernous room filled with bleeps and electronic explosions. The arcade is throbbing with kids - more kids than I would have ever imagined could live in such a small town. In the far-back corner I spot a white mop of hair. I wave, just as the mayor moves deftly for the door. I follow him outside and yell his name before he can cross the street. I lunge for his hand, shaking it strongly, holding on to him. "Whatever I say you won't put in the paper," he says. "Everyone just wants to talk to the EPA." I assure him that isn't the case; I'd like to know what he thinks of the cleanup. But he slips out of my grip. As he starts across the street, he shouts back, "I've got a meeting!"

I watch him drive down the street, past the empty storefronts and the abandoned bank, and wonder what it would be like to be mayor here, in a town with no industry, where close to 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Those who work are either employed by the school or the town, or they drive two hours to Provo, or to the Dugway Proving Grounds military weapons facility. But the residents here remain fiercely loyal to their town, where most of them have deep roots. Walk into a Eurekan's house and you'll likely find sketches of the town's landmark mining equipment framed and hanging on the walls. Even relative newcomers are literally living with the town's history: Every home in Eureka, including some constructed only two years ago, is built atop mine tailings.

But the town's loyalty was shaken a few years ago, after a nurse with the Utah Department of Health completed her routine rounds in the region's public schools. In Eureka, she found an alarming number of children medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. To her, there seemed only one explanation: lead poisoning, most likely from the mines.

The health department circulated fliers about voluntary lead testing, came back to the schools, and sampled about half of the kids. The youngest - from toddlers to elementary school age - tested high, with blood levels sometimes more than four times the limit established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, young kids are most affected by lead; they ingest dirt from their messy hands, they're closer to the ground, and since they're small, a little bit of lead has a big effect.

But in Eureka, the test also showed something unusual: An unexpected number of teenagers tested high as well. Soon after the blood tests, Steve Thiriot, a section manager with the CERCLA and Emergency Response Division of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, tested the soil in Eureka. "We struck the mother lode in terms of contamination," says Thiriot, who discovered that lead levels in some yards were well above 500 parts per million - more than twice the EPA limit.

Since he couldn't explain why the teenagers were also testing high, Thiriot continued his investigation, eventually unearthing a book published in 1953 by Ralph Richards, a medical doctor with the University of Utah. Richards reported that a high number of miners in the Eureka area died from causes now linked to lead poisoning - things like kidney failure, anemia, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Between the soil samples, the high blood-lead levels, and the historical evidence, Thiriot presented enough material to the EPA to warrant an emergency cleanup and qualify the town for Superfund listing. But Thiriot still couldn't explain the source of the lead contamination in the teenagers, and neither could Bert Garcia, the regional Superfund supervisor, who visited Eureka last year.

"We couldn't figure it out," says Garcia. "Then we looked around the hills and saw the obvious." Along the hillsides, thin roads loop up and over steep slopes and cut across ridges - trails where the teenagers ride four-wheelers and motorcycles. As they buzzed around the dirt in the hot, dry summers, the kids inhaled lead-contaminated dust from the tailings.

For the residents of Eureka, the idea that lead and arsenic - another contaminant found in high levels here - pervaded every part of the landscape, fueled either anxiety or rebellion.

"I keep my kids really clean, but I got obsessive about it after we found out," says Nicole Hillman, a fifth-generation Eurekan, whose three kids tested above the limit. "I wish we had known before what we know now. Something definitely needs to be done." Her eldest son also has childhood diabetes, and she wonders whether that could be connected to the lead.

At the other extreme, some parents refused to have their kids tested. The health problems associated with lead poisoning are difficult to prove unequivocally, but high blood-lead levels have been connected to lower I.Q. scores, learning difficulty and ADD. Some people found the idea insulting, as if the EPA was saying that generations of Eurekans were stupid. A few people simply reasoned that they grew up with lead and turned out fine, so what could happen to their kids? The mayor, I discover, shares this attitude. "People have lived here for 100 years and never had a problem with lead," says Conder, when I reach him on the phone. "The EPA has figured they're smarter than everyone else. Nobody here is worried about the lead - I don't really believe those tests. Only the EPA is worried about it. We think they're just picking on us."

More responsibility, less money

If the Bush administration has its way, Superfund may not bully Eureka for long. This year, Bert Garcia's regional department, which handles cleanups in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas, spent more than two-thirds of its $28 million Superfund budget on one site - Libby, Mont., where more than 200 deaths have been attributed to asbestos exposure from a local vermiculite mine (HCN, 4/23/01: Company leaves victims in its dust).

In response to Rep. Dingell's report, the EPA shifted $200 million left over from other projects to pay the initial costs of cleanup in Eureka and some of the 33 sites that the report identified as unfunded. But that kind of money is going to be hard to find in the future, says Kate Probst, a senior research fellow with Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank that has been watching Superfund nearly since its inception. "Clearly, they're in a logjam. My concern is that they'll clean up everything obvious and not get at the larger contamination."

One solution offered by the Bush administration is to transfer responsibility for cleanup to the states, especially at "megasites" such as Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. There, the administration has put a 31-year, $359 million proposed Superfund cleanup in the hands of a local commission that will help direct the EPA. It's a strategy embraced by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who, at a press conference unveiling the commission, said it might serve as a model for other megasites (HCN, 9/2/02: EPA puts cleanup in local hands).

"The local people are going to be managing the cleanup in the long term anyway," says Marianne Deppman, with the Region 10 EPA office. Some groups are opposed to localizing the cleanup, she says, because they think that the Superfund program works within a more stringent set of guidelines. "They just want to make sure that it isn't going to be a lesser cleanup," Deppman adds, "and we think that we can do that."

But critics say the states aren't qualified to handle Superfund-level cleanups. "As far as Coeur d'Alene goes, it's a bad trend to get into," says Jessica Frohman of the Sierra Club, which has been fighting the Coeur d'Alene commission and lobbying for full Superfund listing in the basin. "The states don't have the resources, the funds or the initiative to do it."

Probst adds that, in the end, local cleanups can often cost more money. "Usually (local cleanups) languish, and eventually get put on the National Priorities List," she says.

Another effort to put cleanup in local hands is an EPA program known as "Brownfields," which provides grants to businesses and communities that clean up and "redevelop" contaminated sites. This year, the Bush administration pushed Congress to give the program twice as much funding as it received in 2001 (see story next page).

While the Bush administration is handing off cleanup to states and private businesses, it has gutted one of the strongest safeguards for local communities - the Superfund ombudsman. When President Reagan created the position, he envisioned an independent, nonpartisan advocate, who would oversee the program and allay fear and suspicion by encouraging community involvement. But last spring, Whitman moved the position from the EPA to the Office of Inspector General (OIG), a division of the federal government that handles internal investigations. She also made it a presidentially appointed position - making it more vulnerable to political winds than it had been previously.

This put tremendous pressure on ombudsman Robert Martin, who had earned a reputation as a community champion (HCN, 8/28/00: Who'll clean up a mining mess?). "My entire job description was being eliminated," explains Martin, who discovered last year that Whitman had connections to a company responsible for a Superfund site in Colorado, where the liability and the cleanup had been shortcut. "The position used to be very transparent; I made everything open and available to the public. But the OIG is far more secretive - I mean, you've got people 'investigating' carrying badges and guns. I was no longer allowed to talk to the press."

Martin objected to the move and asked a judge to grant him a restraining order against Whitman so he could continue working freely until they could reach some middle ground. But Whitman had the order lifted. "Within three hours of the judge's decision, the administrators changed the sign over my door, and sent 20 federal agents to take my files and erase my hard drive," says Martin. "It became quite clear that they were eradicating the position."

President Bush has not appointed a new ombudsman yet, but Martin is not optimistic: "Whether it's by intention or default, the (ombudsman's) program is dwindling to nothing, and that's a disgrace."

The thinning of the EPA's Superfund responsibility continued in September, when Whitman signed an agreement giving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight over Superfund sites resulting from uranium mining and other nuclear-related programs. The NRC is not known for its stringent cleanup standards.

While delegating cleanup to the NRC, businesses and local agencies might relieve some financial pressure on the EPA, regional supervisor Garcia says it's not solving his problems.

"Really, there's no one else out there who can handle these mining sites," he says. "Superfund cleans up the sites that no one else can handle. But if we don't have money in the spring, well, then it's not going to happen."

Is something better than nothing?

Back in Eureka, residents are already feeling the Superfund budget pinch. Posted on a wall at the city offices, a map assigns each home in town a color that indicates its level of lead contamination. "These green-colored ones are the highest levels," says town recorder Bigler, pointing out a series of squares that form a meandering line dropping from the mines to Main Street. The track follows the flow of snowmelt, she says. In the winter, the snowpack accumulates on the mine tailings, and in the spring, the runoff carries lead with it, contaminating the yards in its path.

The green on the map lines up perfectly with the fresh green EPA lawns outside, because the regional office, with its limited funding, tackled those yards first. The larger challenge - capping or removing the mine tailings that bleed lead through the town - will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, Eureka creeps closer to becoming a ghost town. Bigler tells me that at least 30 homes are on the market. "But no one can get a loan," she says. One of the challenges faced by Superfund sites like Eureka is the inevitable freeze on local real estate. "I don't think people don't want to move here - one man wants to buy a bunch of stores on main street and fix them up," says Bigler. "But the banks just won't let people move here."

On the wall beside us, a rack holds EPA-published educational pamphlets. Few are picked up, Bigler tells me. I flip through the titles: Lead poisoning and your children, Homeowners exempted from Superfund Cleanup costs, and one that I take out, This is Superfund.

Inside, pencil drawings illustrate a simple explanation of the law, where the money comes from, and what citizens can expect during the process. Ironically, the pamphlet highlights everything threatened by Superfund's empty coffers, things like "the best available science to determine risks," and "new and innovative technologies to help achieve faster and less expensive ways to clean up sites."

Bigler and I talk about blood-lead testing in children. I tell her that the CDC is considering lowering the acceptable blood-lead levels. In other words, lead may be even more dangerous than previously thought. She tells me her daughter had three tests over the last year, with wildly divergent results. She also tells me that her daughter is undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer. (Later, when I get home, I discover that the Bush administration recently removed the CDC's advising pediatrician - who was pushing for the new lead levels - and is trying to replace him with a doctor who has discounted the consequences of lead poisoning and testified in defense of lead companies.)

I look back down at the last page of the pamphlet, which concludes: "EPA's Superfund Program is the most aggressive hazardous waste cleanup program in the world."

Lolly Merrell is senior editor for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Superfund: On the Hill… on the ground

- Brownfields program makes cleanup profitable

You can contact ...

  • The Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund program, www.epa.gov/superfund/index.htm;
  • The Sierra Club, 415/977-5500, www.sierraclub.org;
  • Resources for the Future, 415/977-5500, www.rff.org.