Working Paper 93-1, July 15, 1993(1)

By Willard Chappell

Director of the Environmental Sciences Program,

University of Colorado, Denver

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Willard Chappell for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on February 18, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

© 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

I've been with the University of Colorado since 1967 and have been involved in environmental conflicts since 1970--mostly involving natural resources: molybdenum, oil shale, and uranium tailings. More recently, I've been dealing with old mining sites that are Superfund sites because of residual heavy metals: molybdenum and lead, for instance. We did a blood lead study in Leadville in 1987, and a blood lead study in Central City, Black Hawk, and Idaho Springs in 1990 that were both connected to Superfund activity there. Also, there was a study in 1990 that I was only peripherally connected with, that was done at the Smuggler Mountain site in Aspen. But I really had no connection with the Smuggler Mountain site, other than hearing rumors here and there, until last fall. Then I got a phone call asking me if I would be interested in being on the Smuggler Mountain Technical Advisory Committee. I agreed.

Let me give you a little background. The whole situation started in 1981 with an accidental discovery of high lead, cadmium, and zinc concentrations in the soils around the residences of an area called Smuggler Mountain which is near an old mining and milling area where they had mined lead and silver and had dumped mine wastes and tailings waste in the process. In more recent years this area was developed into a combination of low- and middle-income housing for employees. The homes include condominiums, trailer parks, and some ordinary single-family dwellings. It is mostly condominiums and trailer parks, but trailer parks only in the way that Aspen can have trailer parks: they are condominiumized so that they own the space they are on and the average trailer and space goes for $150,000. That's what Aspen calls "low-income" housing.

The discovery of heavy metals in this area was made in 1981 and Aspen was named a Superfund site in 1986. It was not until then that people began finding out what that meant. One of the things it meant was that residents would have problems getting loans on their property because Ginnie Mae and other mortgage holders could have possibly became a "responsible" party and could have been held liable for the costs of clean-up. So when people started trying to get a second mortgage to put a kid through college or put a roof on, or do something else, they found out that they couldn't get a loan. So a Superfund designation does have impacts on individuals.

Like many mining sites, (I think this is more common with mining sites than other types of Superfund sites), the people there didn't feel that they were at risk. We heard the same thing in Leadville. We'd run into some 80 year-old guy and he'd say, "My father used to put tailing material in my sand box, and I'm ok." While that is not an uncommon thing to hear, the problem, of course, is that it doesn't demonstrate anything. With the levels of lead exposure we are talking about these days, we are talking about subclinical effects: the possibility of a five point IQ deficit, for instance. This is important, but you can't look at a group of kids and see that a particular kid has been affected. People have a tendency with poisons to want to see jerky movements or something that is clinically obvious. That does complicate the issue a great deal, but nonetheless these subclinical effects are important.

The community began to feel that they didn't agree with EPA and this feeling spread. One young woman, Patty Clapper, became very active and organized a lot of the community opposition. (She was the primary subject of a New Yorker article that was published about a year ago, by Jeremy Bernstein. The article was really about Smuggler Mountain, but I think that Patty was the hero of that article.)

The conflict built to the point that Aspen and Pitkin County basically refused to do anything. They just sort of dug in their heels. There was an agreement at one point--called the Denver Agreement--between EPA and the community, but that fell apart because the community resentment was still there. [EPA tried to implement a solution, but the Aspen City administration changed and the new administration decided to oppose the EPA, although the earlier administration had agreed to EPA's approach. The EPA was just several weeks away from the time when they planned to start excavating yards when the conflict really came to a head. Some members of the community said that they were not satisfied and were going to lie down in front of the bulldozers if the EPA brought them in. Even if they got an access order, they said, "that's okay, we'll just lie down in front of the bulldozers." That's when the EPA backed down and decided, at least for the time, not to try to go ahead with the clean up. They had the authority to proceed--they could have called in the marshals and moved the people out. But they decided to stop and consider the problem some more.]1

The problem still festered for some time, until Colorado Senators Wirth and Brown arranged a meeting with the Assistant EPA Administrator for solid waste and emergency response. That was February, 1992. At that meeting, EPA officials met with the Senators and a delegation from Aspen, which included Patty Clapper. Out of that meeting came an agreement that EPA would fund an independent assessment by a technical advisory committee, which came to be called TAC. This committee was to review site-specific and lead-related documents, and on that basis, provide an independent assessment of the health risks posed by the heavy metals at the site. Committee membership, I assume, was mutually agreed upon by both sides.

Six people eventually agreed to be on the committee: myself; Paul Hammond, from the University of Cincinnati; Rufus Chaney, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Mary Ellen Mortensen, from Ohio State; Alice Stark, from the New York State Department of Health; and Ian Thornton, from the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London, England. All of these people have had extensive experience with lead, either in the soil chemistry as with Chaney and Thornton, or with the health effects, or other important aspects of the problem.

We came to Aspen in late October, 1991 and were asked to address three questions which were formulated by both sides. The questions were:

1) Does the existing site-specific data and scientific literature provide adequate evidence which confirms that the soil lead in the Smuggler Mountain Superfund Site poses a current realistic health threat (i.e., unacceptable risk of disease or impairment) to any of the residents on or near the site?

2) If the answer to question number one is no, is there a reasonable probability of such a threat developing in the future?

3) Having made this health threat assessment, what is the TAC's recommended public health action, if any, in order to protect the current and future health of residents from the soil lead effect?

The committee met the night before the formal part of the session and I was elected chairman. The next day we had a session much like a science court. We heard expert testimony from people in the EPA and people representing the EPA as well and from people representing the community. These people were well-known and well-versed in the subject and they spent the whole day giving expert testimony.

Prior to that we had a field trip to the site and were taken around and shown the various aspects of the site. We had also been sent a box of reports and papers to read, including all the latest studies. We read all that material, visited the site, listened to the testimony all day and then met that evening to discuss what we had learned.

The committee came to its conclusions very quickly and unanimously. Then we spent all of the next day writing a two or three-page executive summary that was to be read at a press conference at the end of the second day. The Executive Summary gave some prelude and answers to the questions. Over the next several months we wrote a report to back up the conclusions of the Executive Summary, which we finished by the end of January. [The Consortium has a copy of this report in its library.]

Let me tell you quickly what the answers were that we agreed upon. On question number one, which basically asked if there was a current, realistic health threat to any of the residents on or near the site, the committee unanimously concluded that the answer was no. We based this conclusion, mostly, on evidence from a blood study of local children that had been done in 1990. (Children are the main population of concern.) This study found a geometric mean blood lead of 2.6 micrograms per deciliter. No one is quite sure what the average blood lead in the United States is, but most people would agree that it is probably above 2.6 micrograms per deciliter. Just to show some comparisons, at Leadville, in the study we did there, we found the geometric mean blood lead of 8.7 as opposed to 2.6; at the Clear Creek/Central City site we found 5. So 2.6 was very, very low indeed. It is comparable to results from remote sites in Venezuela and Tibet. The committee felt that this indicated that there was just not a realistic threat. None of the young kids (i.e., six months to six years old) were above what is now considered the level of concern of 10. There was one teenager who was above 10, but we felt that could have been an anomalous reading.

On question number two, with respect to potential threat, the committee unanimously agreed that there was the possibility of a future threat, but the likelihood was small. If the demographics, land use, and environmental conditions remain essentially unchanged at the site, we did not anticipate any future realistic health threat.

Again, looking at the situation, it is a very different situation in Aspen than in Leadville. The socio-economic aspects of the site are very different, and lots of studies have shown that socio-economic aspects have a profound effect on the exposure to children. The main exposure we are talking about is incidental hand to mouth ingestion of soil and dust. Little kids eat soil and some kids eat more dirt and soil than others. How much they eat depends on a number of factors, such as the amount of soil cover they have around their home, the amount of paternal and maternal attention that they have, and a variety of other things. Those have been well-documented in studies. In Aspen all of the things that can lessen the impacts were there: higher socio-economics, better soil cover, etc.

I won't get into all of the other details, but finally we did make some recommendations. One of the recommendations was to continue blood-lead surveillance of the children to see what happens over time. I should note that normally you don't really feel comfortable about using kids as canaries, but since the blood leads were so low, we felt reasonably comfortable because we didn't feel there was very much risk that kids were going to go up very high. So this seemed to be a prudent way of following the situation.

We also recommended that they didn't need to remove the soil. (Probably the most expensive part of the solution that EPA was recommending was the removal of a foot of soil from around the area.) We did recommend some things, such as covering a berm that was composed of tailings material. We also said that some changes in site use should be reviewed by the city and county health departments, to evaluate possible changes in soil exposure to young children. We said that if owners wanted to have vegetable gardens they should be in raised beds with at least 12 inches of clean soil. (That is not so much because eating the vegetables is a problem, but because people tend to track dirt into their homes after they have been working in the garden.)

On the whole, the recommendations that we made were certainly more modest than what EPA had been proposing. I'm not exactly sure of the cost figures. I've heard the city and county estimated that the cost of our suggestions was about $300,000, while the cost of the EPA recommendation was $10-12 million.

I should also mention that before we arrived, the City Council and County Commissioners had passed resolutions that they would go along with what ever the committee recommended. EPA and the city and county now are in negotiations on this and I'm not quite sure of where things are at this point. The question that now remains to be answered is, did it work and did it help resolve the conflict? I'll suppose we'll know that when it comes out of the negotiations.


1 This information was contributed by Mark Alston, EPA Superfund Program Director for Region VIII, who also participated in this seminar.