Residents of Panoramic Heights, county worried about potential exposure to toxic metals
The video on John Pulbratek’s iPhone showed a cloud of dust flung high above the Panoramic Heights neighborhood north of Ouray. He filmed the video while contractors were digging trenches for Clearnetworx and its sister company Deeply Digital, Montrose-based internet service providers, to install fiber optic cables.
Under normal circumstances and in many other subdivisions in Ouray County, this wouldn’t be more than a nuisance. But Panoramic Heights was developed on top of a reclaimed mine milling site, with the first house built in 1960.
Underneath the surface, this subdivision has a layer of material described by the Environmental Protection Agency as having “unacceptably high concentrations” of heavy metals, particularly arsenic and lead. And that has residents and county leaders concerned.
The incident, which Pulbratek brought to Ouray County’s attention during the July 12 commissioners meeting, prompted county officials to order Earthworx Excavation and Clearnetworx to stop digging while they investigate whether workers disturbed contaminated soil.
“It’s a concern,” Pulbratek told commissioners. “I don’t feel enough was done, and if there are some guidelines, they should be enforced.” According to a June 2009 EPA site report, the agency intended to excavate between 12 and 18 inches of contaminated topsoil and replace it with new dirt and gravel. At those depths, contaminated soil would not pose a public threat during “normal activity.” The agency then placed orange mesh fencing to indicate where the contaminated dirt began.
According to Earthworx owner Mike Lachner, his employees dug for roughly two weeks before the county issued the stop work order. Crews worked throughout Panoramic Heights and further up County Road 14 toward the Bachelor Syracuse Mine.
County officials have not yet confirmed if workers disturbed the contaminated dirt while they dug. Scraps of orange construction fencing — the material the EPA placed on top of the remaining contaminated dirt — were evident in drainage ditches. It’s currently unclear if it was unearthed by the digging.
When asked if his employees ever encountered lighter- colored dirt while digging, Lachner said they did, although he was unsure of how long they dug after first noticing it.
“Yeah, we did there a little bit for about 100 feet on that intersection of Sunshine (Lane) and Mountain View (Drive). And when we encountered that, we stayed above the mesh fence. I guess they’re using that as a marker,” he said. “Our target depth was 30 inches, we put everything in that subdivision, that area, there at 24 (inches). And we encountered that mesh at about 18 (inches). So we got with Deeply Digital at that point, and we brought our depth up to stay above that. But I mean, we did get into it for a few feet there.”
Site tests have not yet been conducted, so it is unclear if residents face any health risks.
The report stated that “the release of these hazardous substances (heavy metals) into the environment poses a threat to public health.”
County Attorney Leo Caselli told the Plaindealer that Road and Bridge Superintendent Ty Barger issued a verbal stop work order on July 13. The county was still preparing to issue a formal written order as of Wednesday.
Caselli said Barger and Planning Director Mark Castrodale reached out to the EPA and were coordinating with Paul Peronard, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver.
“We’re trying to get an idea of what the situation is and what they (the EPA) recommend in terms of testing and remediation, and we’re taking all the steps we can to try and keep everyone safe,” Caselli said.
Next steps could include a county engineer or private company collecting soil samples, taking photographs of the work site area and possibly resurfacing the neighborhood’s roads, if that’s deemed necessary.
There are also questions about whether Clearnetworx received all the necessary permits before Earthworx began digging and if there was adequate communication between county departments prior to work starting.
At this time, it seems the company had permission from one county department but not from another. Barger told the Plaindealer contractors received all of the permits required by the Road and Bridge Department to begin work.
However, Castrodale on July 12 told county commissioners Earthworx hadn’t received an excavation permit from the Land Use Department, which is required to dig in certain areas around Panoramic Heights. During the meeting, County Administrator Connie Hunt said the Road and Bridge Department may not have been aware that contractors needed additional permits from other county departments. That lack of awareness extended to Clearnetworx owner Doug Seacat, who said he didn’t know his company needed the excavation permit.
“I am aware of that now, so we’re getting a permit for that and we’ll have that before we do any more construction,” he said.
In a separate interview with the Plaindealer, Castrodale said the majority of permits and work were coordinated through the Road and Bridge Department and confirmed nobody asked him about receiving an excavation permit.
“I wouldn’t typically be involved except for the application of that exca- vation permit because that is specific in the ordinance that (digging in Panoramic Heights is) a Land Use Department review,” Castrodale said. “I don’t know that either (Clearnetworx or Earthworx) have reached out to me, and there wasn’t any formal communication with the Land Use Department about that work.”
He confirmed the subdivision is the only area in Ouray County that requires an excavation permit due to mining waste. He said it had been at least three years since his office last issued an excavation permit in Panoramic Heights. Back then, it was for a resident to build a porch.
Commissioner Jake Niece acknowledged during the July 12 meeting there were flaws in the current permit system.
“It sounds like we’ve got some follow-up to do, and then also maybe some process revisions,” he said. “I don’t want us to rely on the institutional knowledge of individuals, because that material’s going to still be there in 50 years and 100 years, forever. So we need to make sure that it lives in a database that can be easily referenced anytime someone wants to dig in that area.”
The lack of communication extended to Panoramic Heights’ homeowners, some of whom said they received no communication from county officials or contractors either before or after work began.
Atop Panoramic Heights’ northern hill where the EPA found the most severe contamination, Jim Benny and Deedee Dever said some dust got inside their home after leaving their windows open, unaware of what was occurring.
“(Communication) may have mitigated some of our problems,” Dever said. “We could have shut the windows.”
While Lachner said workers sprayed the road surface with water to mitigate dust, Dever dismissed it as a “pretty pathetic attempt.”
“They were like the Keystone Cops out there, they were just moving fast,” she said, referencing the parodied, incompetent police in silent slapstick films.
According to the EPA report, milling operations began above Panoramic Heights around 1926, with the American Zinc Lead and Smelting Company taking over operations in 1946. The company subsequently expanded operations before shutting down in 1955.
Remnants of the mill littered the site for decades, particularly tailings, which are the waste byproducts from extracting pure metals from ore. As a result, the neighborhood’s dirt became contaminated with arsenic and lead.
Developers began building homes in 1960. Most were built in the 1970s, 2000s and 2010s. Twenty-six of the neighborhood’s 28 homes were built before the EPA released its site report in 2009.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducted a site inspection along with the EPA Site Assessment Program in fall 2007. There, they took soil samples from 19 of the subdivision’s 24 plots, three tailings piles and the roads.
According to an unnamed EPA toxicologist cited in the June 2009 report, nearly every single tested lot exceeded the recommended maximum concentration of lead, which is 750 milligrams per kilogram of dirt.
At least four lots on the neighborhood’s north side exceeded the recommended maximum concentration by between 516% and 708%, while a fifth property exceeded it by 6,400%. Some areas of the roads exceeded it by 229%, while other areas had “low” levels.
Arsenic levels in lots located directly west of Sunshine Lane also exceeded the recommended maximum concentration, which is 130 milligrams per kilogram, by up to 589%.
The report mentioned that unmitigated erosion had carried contaminated dirt to areas south of the original mill site, and that runoff had made its way toward the Uncompahgre River.
Daniel Schmidt is a journalist with Report for America, a national service program which helps boost reporting resources in underserved areas. To make a tax-deductible donation to fund his work, contact erin@ouraynews. com.