PUEBLO, Colo. — Not long after the Trump administration made cleaning up Superfund sites a priority for the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler turned his attention to a century-old neighborhood built for steelworkers that sits atop soil with dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic.
Cleaning up the 1,700 residential properties on Pueblo’s southside was originally scheduled to take more than a decade, but Mr. Wheeler and then-Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento cobbled together the additional $15 million per year needed to cut that timeframe by more than half.
“When I started with the agency in 2018, we knew what the problem was here, we knew what the solution was, but it was slated to take 10-15 years, and I just looked at that and said, that’s too long,” said Mr. Wheeler, who took over as EPA administrator last year. “We needed to get it done faster, and we are.”
The Colorado Smelter site now is slated to be completed in three to five years, part of the administration’s push to fast-track projects on the Superfund National Priorities List where “people live, work and play,” he said.
“This is a new approach we’re taking to Superfund,” said Mr. Wheeler, who toured the site Monday with EPA and local officials. “We’ll have it done by 2023, which means a couple of generations of children will be able to play in their backyard without fear of lead-contaminated soil.”
If the EPA under President Barack Obama had its eye on the sky, seeking to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases in the name of combating climate change, then the agency under President Trump has its hands in the dirt, digging into the unglamorous and often unheralded work of scrubbing polluted properties and spurring community revival.
“There are too many examples of sites around the country that have become stuck and lingered on the list for years, well beyond when they should have been cleaned up and delisted,” Mr. Wheeler said. “President Trump wanted to get these delayed sites unstuck.”
The Superfund National Priorities List is daunting, with 1,335 sites covering everything from old military arsenals to abandoned mines, but Mr. Wheeler said the agency was able to remove all or part of 27 projects last year from the list, the most in one year since 2001.
Even though neighborhoods of single-family homes like Bessemer hardly fit the Superfund stereotype, “they’re not as rare as you would think,” said Mr. Benevento, now associate deputy administrator, who cited the recent remediation of homes near a former vermiculite mine at the Libby Asbestos Site in Montana.
Expediting the Colorado Smelter cleanup creates a domino effect for other Superfund projects, he said.
“By doing this more quickly, we’re saving money for the taxpayer,” Mr. Benevento said. “Most importantly, we’re doing great things for the people in the community, but we’re also going to be able to put this money into other Superfund sites to move them faster. There’s nothing about this that isn’t a win.”
Legacy of ‘Steel City’
The yard contamination, along with an enormous slag pile, are remnants of the town’s manufacturing heyday, when Pueblo was known as “Steel City.” The ore smelters and steel mill employed tens of thousands, but also blew toxins from smokestacks a half-mile to the Bessemer, Eilers and Grove neighborhoods.
“There was tons and tons of smoke, and smoke was money in those days,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart. “That’s why we have health challenges today.”
The lead-and-silver smelter ran from 1883-1908. Now the nearby stucco and A-frame homes serve as residences for lower-income families, some with language barriers, in a community that the Pueblo Food Project coordinator Monique Marez called a “food desert.”
Changing that starts with the cleanup. On Monday, mask-wearing local contractors in the Bessemer neighborhood took soil samples in a yard with a swing set and trampoline.
A few blocks away, workers loaded tons of contaminated dirt into dump trucks headed for a specially designated landfill and replaced it with fresh soil in the yards outside Routt Street’s row of multicolor A-frame houses.
Homeowners can take their pick of landscaping from choices such as sod and xeriscape. Contractors also test indoor dust for contaminants, a process that was slowed down by the novel coronavirus.
Even so, EPA project manager Jamie Miller said the agency has completed 84% of its soil sampling and 59% of indoor sampling at the listed properties. Lead and arsenic have been removed from 48% of the residences, and almost 30% have completed indoor cleanups.
“In the Superfund world, that is lightning fast,” Ms. Miller said.
Template for future cleanups
While tackling a Superfund site may never garner the same enthusiastic media attention as climate-centric initiatives, the Colorado Smelter cleanup has drawn cheers from local officials.
“This project is obviously important to Pueblo. These are historic neighborhoods,” said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar. “The people who live in those neighborhoods are proud of those neighborhoods. I think generally they’ve been very accepting of this cleanup process and they’re excited about the revitalization process.”
The EPA is replacing yards at a clip of six to eight homes per week, a pace that has helped alleviate the concerns of some locals understandably worried about the hit to property values from having their community designated a Superfund site.
After state testing in 2010 showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic in the yards — and even high concentrations of lead in blood testing of children — the residents were still split.
“They thought it might be more of a negative than a positive,” Mr. Hart said.
Ultimately, the Pueblo County Commission and Pueblo City Council voted unanimously for Superfund status — the site was listed in December 2014 — but some locals and business owners asked to have the boundaries drawn so that their properties were excluded. Not anymore.
“I think it had an aura to it — ooh, a Superfund site — but that changed once people saw how good it looks and what they do and the feedback we’re getting,” Mr. Hart said. “Now that they’ve seen the work and how the cleanups are going, they’re begging us, can you expand the boundaries and put my property in there?”
Not everyone is a fan. The Colorado Democratic Party marked Mr. Wheeler’s arrival with a press release blasting Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, a staunch advocate for the project, without mentioning the cleanup.
“Senator Gardner’s support for Andrew Wheeler is letting the fox guard the henhouse, and our environment is paying the price,” said the party. “Gardner has been a rubber stamp for Trump and Wheeler’s toxic agenda, stripping protections for our air and water and letting polluters off the hook during a global pandemic.”
The Associated Press reported in January that the EPA had “the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund clean-up projects in at least 15 years,” while the agency said that 27 of the 34 sites awaiting funding have reached the status of “human exposure under control,” the cleanup threshold.
About 16% of the U.S. population lives within three miles of a Superfund site, or 50 million people, many of whom live in neighborhoods like Bessemer where environmental justice is an issue.
Mr. Wheeler said he envisions the Colorado Smelter cleanup not as a one-off, but as a template for future Superfund projects.
“We’re here because this can be a model for other communities around the country,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We want to see how it’s progressing, we want to see lessons learned, and so far all the lessons we’ve learned here have been great.”