Mine waste cleanup gets thumbs-up | VailDaily.com

Mine waste cleanup gets thumbs-up

Bob Berwyn
Vail, CO Colorado

BRECKENRIDGE ” A controversial plan to move several thousand cubic yards of tainted mine waste to a managed storage site in French Gulch got a conditional thumbs-up from the town council Tuesday.

Several mine waste piles on the national forest Claimjumper parcel ” some with concentrations of lead as high as 5 percent ” will be removed this summer and piled atop similarly polluted material near the abandoned Wellington-Oro mine, then capped, re-vegetated and monitored.

In their current location, next to the Claimjumper condos, the piles have been deemed a direct health risk, especially for any children playing outside. The main threat is through ingestion, said Susan Griffin, a U.S. Environmental Agency toxicologist.

“The soil easily sticks to hands. It’s available for hand-to-mouth contact,” Griffin said.

Next, the county commissioners will take a look at the cleanup, while the EPA, U.S. Forest Service and local planners develop a specific action plan and timeline.

Local residents still had plenty of questions, but after several public information meetings and town council hearings, it appeared that many had their most serious concerns allayed.

“You’ve convinced me,” said Wellington neighborhood resident Sharyn Steiner, explaining that the fact that the removal crews don’t need to wear protective suits helped her understand that there is very little health risk associated with the project.

Based on public comment at Tuesday night’s hearing, most residents seemed to grudgingly agree that the cleanup is the best option. But residents of French Gulch neighborhoods are leery of becoming the target for other, as-yet unspecified future cleanups.

“I don’t think we got anywhere near agreeing that this is the end of this. People in this valley really need to watch this,” said Town Councilman Dave Rossi, who also lives in the Wellington neighborhood.

Rossi said he still hasn’t heard a good explanation of why the polluted Claimjumper parcel suddenly jumped to the top of the list for the Forest Service and EPA. The piles of mine waste have been sitting there for 100 years, and the town and Forest Service have been aware of the pollution issue for at least a decade.

Yet initiation of the current cleanup plan has been pinned to a 2006 study that identified high concentrations of lead and arsenic in the rock.

Jen McAtamey, who also lives in the French Gulch area, said the project will be an inconvenience, but that it’s the right thing for the future.

Some of the citizen and council concerns were echoed in a report from an outside expert hired by the town and county to review the EPA’s plan for the cleanup.

“Should the EPA be trusted?” asked Phil Brown, of American Geological Services, Inc. “The lack of documentation of the Claimjumper is a concern.

“In many cases we have to rely on Steve’s word,” said Brown, referring to Steve Way, the EPA’s cleanup coordinator.

“Communication hasn’t been that great on this project,” he added.

On the other hand, Brown said, the EPA has been doing similar cleanups with great success for the past 27 years.

“With EPA funding, construction and oversight, you’re going to get a Cadillac,” Brown said.

Griffin, the EPA toxicologist, offered an outline of data from similar projects, when the EPA monitored not only air quality but even took blood samples of people living near cleanup areas. In each example she cited, the results showed that the work can be done without any risk to human health.

In response to a question about potential risks to kids in the French Gulch neighborhoods, Griffin said she wouldn’t hesitate to let her own children play outside in the area while the cleanup work is in progress.

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