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The unforgettable smell of lead carbonates and fish

Column by Hal Walter

Environment – December 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IF THERE’S ANYTHING I learned from my stint in Leadville as editor of the weekly newspaper there in 1989, it’s the smell of lead carbonates and the smell of something fishy. Now I live in Custer County, where public officials have told us that lead concentrations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 parts per million on public roads are no big deal. The stench is strangely familiar.

I seem to recall that in Leadville similar concentrations of lead in the dirt were grounds for hiring hordes of lawyers, testing backyards and children for lead levels, declaring an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Cleanup Site, building water-treatment plants, lining barrow ditches with cement, and digging up and hauling away most of the ground east of the city.

But here in Custer County, a little lead carbonate is no cause for panic. We’ll just coat these roads with $15,000 worth of magnesium chloride, and walk away from it. Maybe some day we’ll cap them with asphalt.

The news that Custer County has been building roads near my home with tailings containing high concentrations of lead from the Terrible Mine — yeah, that’s really its name — wasn’t really news to me. I knew the mine to be a defunct lead pit, and I knew the county had been using the tailings as road base. I’ve also noticed that no trout ever dimple the surface of the beaver ponds just downstream from this mine.

While running and biking along the roads around here, I’ve occasionally been dusted down by county dump trucks traveling to and from the mine pit. I usually pull my T-shirt up around my face and breathe through it until the dust clears. I figure what the hell — I gulped down Leadville air for nearly a year and never gained an ounce.

After initial exposure on the front page of the Colorado Springs Gazette, the story about Custer County’s lead-laden roads was buried on page 19 of the local Wet Mountain Tribune, published by a friend of mine who I sincerely hope won’t take this criticism personally. On the front page of that same issue were stories about the upcoming election in which almost all of the local candidates were running unopposed, and a local couple’s attendance of a tourism clusterfab. A headline about lead levels approaching 4,000 ppm on a few backroads couldn’t compete with those screamers.

For leadheads like myself who found the story intriguing because we are often out on those roads eating the dust, the editorialized message in the headline — don’t panic — was less than reassuring. The scoop was: “state and local officials assure area residents and visitors that there is no health risk.”

The findings of the report issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment revealed that the two main thoroughfares near my house — county roads 271 and 265 — have lead-carbonate concentrations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 ppm. My road, County 261, appears to have gravel of similar origin, as do several nearby roads. A road in the town of Westcliffe that was salted with tailings of unknown origin was found to have concentrations of 3,600 ppm.

No big deal? No health risk?

A report by Golder Associates, an international environmental consulting company, states that 3,500 ppm was the EPA’s quantitative action level for lead in soil in residential areas of the California Gulch site at Leadville. The report indicates that several Leadville residential areas contain lead concentrations greater than 3,500 ppm in the 0- to 6-inch depth increment. The lead concentrations in soil vary significantly from block to block, but within the City of Leadville concentrations mainly vary between 1,000 and less than 3,500 ppm.

With these figures for lead concentrations in Leadville, it’s possible to conclude that a good deal of the soil in the Superfund site is actually less polluted than some of the road base in Custer County where concentrations reach 4,000 ppm.

The EPA’s acceptable level of lead, by the way, is 400 ppm or less.

For the mathematically challenged, that means lead concentrations in the Leadville Superfund Site and on the affected Custer County road system range between 7.5 and 10 times the acceptable level.

What’s more alarming is that the lead in Custer County is on roads where the dust is whipped up on a regular basis by traffic — mostly contractors traveling to and from building sites in a sparsely populated area of the fourth-fastest growing county in the nation. There are at least 12 miles of these roads by my estimation, but probably more. In Leadville most of the contaminated dirt in the cleanup area, though in much larger quantity, was relatively undisturbed, some of it held in place by plant life, in an approximately 16-square-mile area.

Then there is the question of water quality. Thus far nobody has raised the question about the impact of runoff from these roads into barrow ditches which feed small tributary creeks that are a source of water for livestock and wildlife in Custer County.

LEADVILLE boasts two water-treatment plants to keep metal-tainted water out of the Arkansas River, a stream in which trout rarely staved off kidney failure beyond three years of age before these treatment plants went on line. Some barrow ditches along roads in the Leadville area have been lined with concrete to minimize leeching of heavy metals, including zinc, cadmium and lead, into the water as it heads downhill toward the treatment plants, and ultimately the river. In Custer County, many of the roads in question parallel streambeds, making it easy for gravel from these roads to make its way into the watershed.

According to Custer County’s public health nurse, a letter was mailed to 23 households along the leaded roads. Of these 23 households, only 11 are permanent residents. Children are rare-enough creatures out here that I haven’t been visited by a trick-or-treater in eight Halloweens.

The letter urged testing of young children, in which high lead levels have been associated with learning disabilities and neurological problems.

Adults may also undergo testing if they please. One adult who has been tested is a member of the county road crew. He tested negative for lead, but I’ll note that he was glassed inside the heavy equipment’s cab, and rooster tails from dump trucks and graders generally fan out from behind the vehicles.

Test results may not be enough to satisfy some residents. One neighbor who is building a home next to one of these contaminated roads has mentioned the words “class-action lawsuit.” Another neighbor who routinely pushed her toddler in a baby jogger every morning before seeing the story in the Gazette, says she’s ceased exercising on the road, and is seeking independent testing of her children’s blood and her home’s water supply.

She says if either test comes back positive there’s going to be hell to pay.

Custer County’s lead problem may just be dust in the wind like the state and local officials are telling us, but it sure is starting to smell a little bit like Leadville around here.

Hal Walter has eaten a lot of dust in his career as a newspaperman and writer, and wonders if that’s where he got some of the lead in his pencil. He lives near the old mining camp of Ilse (pronounced Ill-See), where the Terrible Mine is located.