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Cleanup gets the lead out
EPA hauls off contaminated dirt in Tooele

SHARE Cleanup gets the lead out
EPA hauls off contaminated dirt in Tooele

STOCKTON, Tooele County -- The houses below the foothills of the Oquirrh Mountains have naked lawns.

The weeping willow tree where David Rusk built his kids' treehouse is gone. So are the 10-foot-tall pine trees Bill Borgogno planted in his 50th wedding anniversary.His yard, once a forest of 51 trees, is now nothing but dirt.

"It looks naked now," Borgogno said. But by late summer he hopes to have it nicely covered with a grassy lawn and 15 lindon trees planted, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency.

An EPA emergency response team is cleaning up 29 properties with the worst concentrations of lead and arsenic from old mining operations here in Stockton, about 15 miles south ofTooele.

The EPA and Utah Department of Environmental Quality have released a draft of a $14 million Superfund cleanup plan for about 130 more properties contaminated with arsenic and lead by a turn-of-the-century smelter that operated just northeast of where Borgogno's home is now.

Most of Stockton's 400-plus residents knew that the mill above the town processed lead and silver ore before it closed more than 80 years ago.

But residents only learned last summer just how bad their neighborhood was contaminated. That's when EPA-conducted tests turned up 69,000 parts lead per million parts soil (ppm). That is far above the state's limit of 500 ppm. The highest levels found are 150,000 ppm, in the foothills next to the old Jacobs Smelter site.

What does that mean?

It means the dirt is "about 15 percent lead," said Al Lange, the EPA's project coordinator in Stockton.

The state is spending about $4.8 million on the emergency removal of the most contaminated soil.

State and federal officials want to do more.

They are taking public comments through July 15 on plans for a more thorough cleanup. Their preferred alternative is a $14 million cleanup proposal for the 130 properties, paid for under the federal Superfund. Utah would have to come up with a 10 percent match.

There's public support for it, said Eldon Sandino, an ex-mayor who serves on the agencies' community forum.

That's because the proposal is similar to the cleanup EPA is doing now, said Steve Poulsen, DEQ project manager. "Residents have an idea what to expect." So far, the cleanup is "wonderful," Sandino said.

Some of his neighbors agree.

"It's neat that there are people concerned about cleaning up the stuff," said Borgogno, who has lived at his home all of his 37 years.

Stockton residents didn't know about the danger for decades. Borgogno tells of how, as a child, he used to sled down piles of mine tailing. As he grew older, the mine dumps were a popular place for four-wheeling.

But lead ingested or absorbed into the body can cause learning disabilities. Kids who dig in the dirt are especially at risk, health officials say.

Cameo Patch worries about her 4-year-old daughter, Kylie, playing in the dirt. Her 2-year-old twin sons, Nickalis and Gabriel, have barely touched a blade of grass since the family home was built just two years ago.

Many of the old-timers here are left to wonder what, if any, long-term effect a possible exposure could have. Their memories of growing up here run warm, then cold -- a mix of nostalgia and dread.

"I worry about the fact my children played in it," Debbie Rusk said. There are people in town with nerve damage, and she wonders if the lead's the cause.

But for her 18-year-old daughter, Marci, the worst part is the torn-up lawn.

"They took out a ton of our trees," she said. "It's been hectic, getting through traffic."

Since March, contractors with bulldozers have torn out 18-inch-deep strips of dirt, which have been hauled by the truckload to a hazardous waste disposal site at Grassy Mountain, 60 miles northwest of Stockton. Then the same bulldozers backfill the yards with new top soil.

The heavy equipment is a nuisance, Debbie Rusk said. "What's worse, diesel in my house or lead under our feet?"

Still, she and others praise the cleanup crew -- Environmental Chemical Corp. -- for its consideration.

"It's kind of depressing to see everything disappear," longtime resident Dick Stockdale said. "But I think it will look better."

Dean Lyons, who lives across the street from his daughter, Debbie Rusk, doesn't mind the mess. He's just glad to get rid of the toxic slag.

"I might even plant a garden now."