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6:29 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Dewey-Humboldt: EPA official asks governor to consider Iron King Mine, smelter as a Superfund site

DEWEY-HUMBOLDT ­- The troubled Iron King Mine and smelter site in Humboldt may end up on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund cleanup list.

On June 27, EPA regional administrator Wayne Nastri sent a letter to Gov. Janet Napolitano seeking the state's position about placing on site the EPA's list.

However, EPA Section Chief Mike Montgomery told the Dewey-Humboldt Town Council Tuesday it ultimately is up to the state and the town to decide whether a listing is appropriate. Nastri's asked Napolitano to respond by July 20.

A Superfund site is any land the EPA says poses a hazardous waste contamination risk to human health or to the environment. The EPA tries to get people or companies responsible for the contamination to clean up the site. If the EPA cannot find the contaminator, or that person or company refuses to cooperate, the EPA or the state can clean up the property using Superfund money.

Nastri said in his letter to Napolitano that "recent investigations" by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA demonstrate the smelter site "poses a significant threat to the public health, welfare and the environment."

ADEQ's studies of the mine and smelter in 2003 and 2004 concluded that arsenic and other metals severely have contaminated the soil, sediments, surface water and groundwater at those sites.

But it was not until 2005 that the EPA did a follow-up study and found high levels of arsenic in four residential yards in Chaparral Gulch downstream of the Iron King Mine and tailing area.

Ironite Products Company, which formerly owned part of the mine, subsequently cleaned up the four properties.

In September 2003 ADEQ accepted Ironite into its Voluntary Remediation Program for cleanup and development of a work plan on its part of the site.

However, that plan did not include the other two mine properties, the smelter property and other potentially contaminated areas in the town, causing concern among EPA officials.

"We do not want to see areas we have cleaned up in the Chaparral Gulch contaminated again," Montgomery said. "Our main concern is the residential area, but the industrial properties are the source."

Montgomery said on average it takes his agency 10 to 15 years to clean up a Superfund site. He added that Superfund may not necessarily be the most cost-effective way to treat the Humboldt sites, but he believes some action is necessary.

"There are multiple properties that have historical contamination that need to be addressed," Montgomery said. "There has not been significant progress under other regulatory programs."

ADEQ Deputy Director for Waste Programs Michael Fulton said the governor has yet to decide what she will do.

"She can give no response, say that the state concurs with the EPA or say, 'No, we have a better plan,'" Fulton said.

In the meantime, the town council and Dewey-Humboldt's Environmental Issues Advisory Committee will formulate their own position on a potential Superfund listing.

The defunct Iron King Mine, near the intersection of Highway 69 and Iron King Road, encompasses 153 acres, but tailings and waste rock piles cover most of the mine.

Nastri said the mine blankets three properties. On two of them, workers converted tailings to fertilizer. The other property served as a waste reduction complex for recyclable materials and construction debris.

Meanwhile the smelter, near the intersection of Third and Main streets in Humboldt, spans 182 acres. It still holds hundreds of thousands of square feet of yellow-orange tailings, grey smelter ash and slag.

D-H councilman and environmental committee member Len Marinaccio wants the council to schedule a special meeting to examine the issue.

"I've got a ton of questions," Marinaccio said.