EPA’s Wheeler Focuses On Environmental Justice In Colorado Site Cleanup

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EPA’s Wheeler Focuses
EPA scientists said U.S. should tighten key air pollution limit.

Delivering environmental justice to communities of color and accelerated clean-ups to brownfield and Superfund sites in the West, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler made a stop in Pueblo, Colorado, Tuesday to view the ongoing removal of lead and arsenic from a century-old smelting plant near residential areas.

Wheeler toured the Colorado Smelter Superfund Site that was active from 1883 to 1908 producing lead and silver, and had been dormant for more than a century before being added to the agency’s priority clean-up list.

Giving the communities and residents piece of mind and equal access to human health was a priority for Wheeler and EPA and community leaders, “regardless of their zip code.”

“This means that parents of children playing on playgrounds, and in areas outside their homes will know their kids are safe from heavy metal pollution. This means that businesses, schools, and families can invest in the future with confidence that their voices are being heard,” Wheeler said.

The nearby Eilers, Bessemer, and Grove neighborhoods are home to nearly 1,900 residential and commercial properties, according to U.S. Census data. Wheeler said EPA had completed soil sampling at 84 percent of those properties and tested indoor dust from 59 percent of homes in the area since 2018.

“This is an environmental justice community, and there are a lot of people here who need help,” said EPA Region 8 administrator, Greg Sopkin. “This is lead, we don’t want children playing in lead,” he added.

Areas near the affected neighborhoods are overwhelmingly Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 Census. A few neighboring census tracts show majority minority Hispanic populations of between 65 and 76 percent. Low to moderate household income neighborhoods dominate the majority of Pueblo’s census tracts. Homes near the smelter project are between 60.1 percent and 83.0 percent lower income, the highest rates in the city.

Wheeler said that bureaucracies tend to move slowly, “and because so many of these sites are surrounded by minority and low-income communities, when progress is slowed, these communities are left waiting” for agencies like EPA to take action.

Pueblo Mayor Nicholas Gradisar praised the “good partnership” between the city and EPA. “It’s obvious that as a community we get this area revitalized. These are proud neighborhoods, the people that live in them are proud people,” he said.

“We want to make sure they have as many opportunities as they can,” Gradisar said. Pueblo’s historic neighborhoods include steelworks, as well as other energy opportunities, given the “ideal conditions” provided in the area.

Gradisar and other Pueblo officials urged Pueblo residents in the affected areas to ensure they were included in testing and clean-up operations, not only for safety and health reasons, but for economic and financial reasons, such as future resell of property.

EPA has removed lead and arsenic from 48 percent of properties that required remediation. The agency remains on track for a 2023 completion in Pueblo, according to the Administrator.

The agency estimated that 16 percent of the population nationwide lives within three miles of a Superfund site, or approximately 50 million people.

“The point of the Superfund program is to someday have no more clean-up to do. The point of the program is not to get caught up in the process but focus on the progress of cleaning up a site,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler called the acceleration of cleanup one of the “single best decision[s] EPA has made” in his most recent tenure at the agency.

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