Originally Published: February 5, 2016 6 a.m.
Cracks in the old smelter stack and contaminated soil does not deter Dewey-Humboldt Mayor Terry Nolan from wanting to build a state park on the Superfund site on the east side of Highway 69. On Jan. 4, Nolan bent the ear of U.S. Sen. John McCain at a meeting with community leaders, proposing the park idea.
"I specifically asked the senator about the Superfund site, what he could do - since they (EPA) determined that it was not that hazardous - that they could just drop it off the Superfund list," Nolan said in an interview with The Daily Courier later in January. He said he was speaking to McCain personally, not as mayor, but two others who were present at the meeting said that wasn't the case, Mayor Nolan was representing the town.
The Humboldt Smelter is part of the Iron King Mine/Humboldt Smelter site added to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Priority List in 2008 for cleanup of contamination left behind by mining industries. Encompassing 182 acres, it is covered with about 763,800 square feet of yellow-orange tailings, more than 1 million square feet of grey smelter ash, and 456,000 square feet of slag.
After the original smelter burned down in 1904, it was rebuilt in 1906 to process 1,000 tons of ore per day, and operated until 1918. Between 1922 and 1927, it operated intermittently, and reopened in 1930, operating into the early 1960s. As with many mining operations, it left behind higher than usual levels of arsenic and lead in the soil and tailings.
The EPA study found the structural condition "ruin/uninhabitable." According to a 2008 study by S. Solidary, Archaeological Consulting Services out of Tempe, the 155-foot brick smelter stack is not eligible for listing with the National Registry either individually or as a contributor to a potential historic district due to loss of integrity.
EPA has not yet released its remedial investigation report, but documents on its website indicate that potential remedial projects on the smelter site could include protective caps over the ash and tailings piles to contain the materials as on-site repositories.
As far as "delisting" the site, as Nolan would like to see happen, that's not likely, said Margot Perez-Sullivan, EPA public information officer.
"We expect to release the remedial investigation and risk assessment, and hold public outreach on residential cleanup this year. Our focus will then shift to developing cleanup options for the tailings, the mine, and the smelter," Perez-Sullivan said this week. "It is not an appropriate time in the process to consider delisting for the IKHS (Iron King / Humboldt Smelter) site."
Nolan acknowledges that he owns property within the Iron King site. EPA has noticed him personally as potentially liable for cleaning up the contamination. He's not worried about his property, Nolan explained, but he is concerned for other property owners who must disclose the contamination and Superfund information prior to selling their property.
"You can't sell property without letting people know it's a Superfund site. That's hard on people who want to sell and move," Nolan said. "It's a shame they can't put their property on the market and sell it."
Asking McCain to "delist" the IKHS site from the National Priorities List is not something the mayor should be doing, said D-H Vice Mayor Doug Treadway, who also attended the Jan. 4 meeting.
"The mayor said EPA hasn't found anything seriously wrong in the testing, why not delist the site. I about fell out of my chair," Treadway said.
After the meeting, Treadway spoke to McCain's aide and relayed that he did not support the Mayor's remarks, and felt Nolan was not speaking for the council or residents of Dewey-Humboldt.
"The mayor said that it would be a good place to create a state park by the smelter site. I think that's just outrageous at this point in time," Treadway said. "There's documented high levels of arsenic and lead on the tailings site in addition to the smelter site. It's not the place for a daycare center or softball field."
Apparently, Nolan also attended a League of Cities and Towns' meeting in Phoenix earlier and asked Sen. Jeff Flake to look into doing away with the EPA. This did not sit well with D-H council member Dennis Repan.
"As someone who has lost a spouse to cancer in this community, and knowing others who had passed or were suffering from unexplained illness, a statement by the mayor that we needed to do away with the EPA to not only Flake but to a U.S. senator goes against what we, as council, are trying to do to protect the safety and welfare of the community. I was personally offended," Repan said, adding that he made the same statement at the Jan. 19 town council meeting.
At a Feb. 2 meeting, the council voted 6-1, with Nolan opposing, to send a letter to McCain asking for his support and any help he can offer to convince the EPA to move more quickly.
Council member Arlene Alen said she understands why EPA might be taking a break with its work in Dewey-Humboldt.
"A lot of that has to do with government cutbacks, restructuring, people leaving. It's time they made a bigger commitment, make some decisions, and move forward," Alen said.
Yavapai County Supervisor Tom Thurman also attended the council meeting and said he, too, thinks it's time EPA "puts up or shuts up." He offered to attach his own letter to the town's letter to McCain.
EPA Site Manager Jeff Dhont said the studies and clean-up project has taken longer than expected. He expects to finish and release the Remedial Investigation and the Risk Assessment reports in the next couple of months.
"It can be frustratingly slow for us as well as the community, so we understand his (Nolan's) concerns," Dhont said.
The Risk Assessment allows EPA to look closely at how residents' health might be affected. Researchers have tested arsenic and lead levels in soils in 580 residential yards, and collected and analyzed more than 6,253 samples. They took additional samples from about 396 of those yards to evaluate further.
"That gives us a sense of the actual risk at every property and also in the soils in non-residential areas," Dhont said. "Now we have a process that goes on from here."
That process includes looking at different clean-up options, evaluating them, giving time for public comment, and then making a determination what the cleanup is to be and putting that into action. EPA will deal with the residences as its first priority, then turn their attention to the bigger engineering prospect of dealing with, and stabilization of, the mine tailings, the smelter, and Chaparral Gulch.
EPA workers removed the top soil in some yards and replaced that with clean soil in 2009. They now are studying amending some soils with either an organic mix or with an inorganic mix in yards that do not have exceedingly high levels of lead. The amendment binds with the lead making it no longer bioavailable (the percentage of a chemical that remains in the body after it is ingested). Using amendments provides a quicker, less expensive, clean-up option with less hassle for the resident, Dhont said. Plus, EPA could clean up more yards with the same amount of funds.
"It has been used in other areas. We wouldn't do it without running tests here. Then it's just a matter of do we use amendments, do we remove at certain places, and when can we get out there and do it," he said. "We are not doing nothing. Things are moving, just not moving at lightning speed."
Dhont said if McCain's office contacts him, he will, of course, respond.
Follow Sue Tone on Twitter @ToneNotes. Reach her at 928-445-3333 x2043 or 928-642-7867.