The Colorado Smelter ceased operations in 1908, but its lasting impact has not been overlooked by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The site of Pueblo’s shuttered lead and silver smelter was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 2014. Since then, the EPA has implemented a comprehensive program of exterior soil sampling, indoor dust sampling, and cleanup when necessary within the former smelter site and neighboring residential areas.
“In 2020, while following strict COVID-19 guidance… the crews made impressive progress, completing over 90% of exterior sampling and 40% of interior sampling,” said Beth Archer, Community Involvement Coordinator for EPA Region 8. “As of today, we’ve completed 65% of exterior cleanups and 30% of interior cleanups.”
Built south of the Arkansas River in 1883, the Colorado Smelter building was severely damaged by flooding in 1921. When the EPA took over in 2014, the former site consisted of a 700,000-square-foot pile of slag situated between three historic neighborhoods; Bessemer, Eilers, and the Grove.
The EPA has divided the large cleanup area into Operational Unit 1, consisting of residential and commercial areas, and Operational Unit 2, which includes the former smelter site itself. Currently, both operational units are undergoing “remedial investigation” by the EPA, according to Archer.
“For Operable Unit 1, we are completing the sampling (remedial investigation) and cleanup (remedial action) concurrently to ensure EPA is removing lead and arsenic contamination from the community as quickly as possible,” Archer said. “Specifically we are focusing on reducing exposure for sensitive populations such as children and women of childbearing age.”
“For Operable Unit 2, EPA recently took some preliminary steps to conduct the ecological risk assessment,” Archer said. “Due to the difference in human health exposure between the residential areas and the former smelter area, work on the former smelter area is on a slower timeline than for the residential and commercial areas.”
Sampling and cleanup at both units was briefly put on hold during March 2020, after COVID-19 was declared a state emergency. Protocols have since been put in place to continue exterior soil sampling and cleanup; however indoor dust sampling has been suspended–with the exception of properties confirmed vacant for more than two weeks.
“EPA is working with our partners to develop an COVID-safe interior cleanup resumption plan which lays out protocols that the contractors would follow to resume indoor work, and pause again if needed,” Archer said. “These protocols include social distancing, frequent hand-washing and personal protective equipment for crews.”
Protocols for indoor work are currently being reviewed by EPA management, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment (PDPHE). Residents living in the cleanup area will be notified by the EPA once the plan is approved.
“At that time, our contractor would begin reaching out to residents to schedule their property’s cleanup,” Archer said. “Residents may delay interior work if they do not feel comfortable proceeding due to COVID-19, and will remain on the schedule for future interior cleanup.”
How Community Members Can Get Involved
Since the EPA began the community outreach for the Superfund site in 2012, local and state health departments have been an integral part of the cleanup process. The three organizations meet at least monthly to discuss progress and decide the next steps. Community members are also important to the process, according to Archer.
“We are always looking for community members to get engaged in the cleanup process,” Archer said. “One of the best things residents can do is sign up for sampling, if they haven’t already, and cleanup if needed.”
“Another way community members can really help us with this process is by having conversations with neighbors in the study area and letting them know who to contact,” Archer said. “We know there are a lot of people involved in the project, and word of mouth from community members is very helpful.”
Community members can also attend virtual Community Advisory Group meetings, where members of the EPA, CDPHE, and PDPHE present the latest progress at the cleanup site and address questions from community members. Those interested are encouraged to contact Archer at (720) 512-1917 or (800) 227-8917 ext. 312-6611.
By the end of 2021, the EPA is looking to approve the safety plan to resume indoor dust sampling and complete the most, if not all, of the exterior soil sampling.
“We are beginning our ‘last call’ for sampling this year,” Archer said. “We really encourage folks to contact us to sign up for sampling as soon as possible. They can contact me at 720-512-1917(text or call). We encourage folks to contact us for more information or visit our website at: www.epa.gov/superfund/colorado-smelter.”