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EPA proposes putting Iron King mine, smelter on Superfund list

DEWEY-HUMBOLDT - The Environmental Protection Agency has officially proposed placing the Iron King Mine and Humboldt smelter complex on its Superfund hazardous waste cleanup list.

On a busy Wednesday, EPA officials named the mine and smelter, located along opposite sides of Highway 69 in Humboldt, as one of six sites nationwide for potential placement on its National Priorities List.

Superfund is the federal program that investigates and cleans up the most difficult uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country that pose the greatest long-term threat to public health and the environment.

EPA officials say former operations and processing of heavy metals at the mine have contaminated soil, sediments and surface water and groundwater with arsenic and lead, among other contaminants.

Dewey-Humboldt residents now will have 60 days in which to voice to the EPA any of their concerns or complaints with a listing.

If the residents do not have any significant complaints, the EPA would move forward with its work.

In the coming months, the EPA will conduct a community meeting to discuss the Superfund program, upcoming activities at the site and opportunities for community involvement.

"I imagine that we (the town) will have some contact with EPA soon because part of their process is to create some kind of a community group with which they can interact and exchange information," said Mayor Earl Goodwin, who was unaware of the agency's decision.

This summer, EPA officials plan to proceed with a remedial investigation/feasibility study at the site where they will collect soil, air and water samples and select an appropriate cleanup method.

"We are mobilizing to collect the data that will help us address the sources of contamination which have been an ongoing concern for many residents," said Keith Takata, Superfund division director for the EPA's Pacific Southwest region, in a statement. "The Superfund program is an appropriate solution where no other viable regulatory options for cleaning up the sources of contamination from these historical operations exist."

The 153-acre Iron King Mine remained active off an on from 1906 to 1969. Miners processed ore from the mine and other nearby mines at the 189-acre Humboldt smelter, which operated from the late 1800s until the early 1960s.

A residential area in Dewey-Humboldt sits between the mine and the smelter. Within the past two years, EPA scientists have detected dangerous levels of arsenic and lead in the soil of several residential yards.

By putting the sites on the National Priorities List, the EPA can investigate the sources of contamination and decide the best cleanup option.

This past fall, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and a majority of the Dewey-Humboldt Town Council supported a Superfund listing.

"I'm happy to hear that there's a possibility of significant remediation (cleanup)," councilman Floyd Wright said. "From what I can see, this will be the best thing for the town."

In the initial stages of the decision making process for an EPA listing, Goodwin suggested that the town seek other alternatives, such as paying for a cleanup with private money, rather than immediately inviting the feds to town.

Councilman Don Tebbe and Vice Mayor Warren Rushton agreed with those sentiments, but most of the council favored Superfund primarily because of the cleanup's considerable expense.

"The council voted to let the EPA proceed, so I'm on board with the council's decision at this point," Goodwin said. "I'm not sure that a cleanup is imperative. It's the data gathering and the analysis that the EPA will do first. Out of that will come the discussion about what to do next, and that could involve cleanup."

The EPA proposes or adds sites to its National Priorities List as part of a periodic review and update of the Superfund program.

The agency identifies and ranks these sites based on threats to nearby populations through actual or potential contamination of soils, groundwater, surface water or air.

With Wednesday's decision, Arizona currently has eight sites on the National Priorities List in addition to the proposed site in Dewey-Humboldt.

On a national level, the agency also has added 12 new hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List.

The EPA has 1,317 final and proposed sites on this list. Only 60 of these sites qualify under the "proposed" category and await final action from the agency.

Contact the reporter at dcook@prescottaz.com

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