All of the contaminated yards and homes in the Colorado Smelter Superfund area in Pueblo will be cleaned up by the end of 2022 or maybe sooner, the regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.
Doug Benevento, the Region 8 director based in Denver, said the agency is committed to providing $15 million a year through 2022 to finish the residential cleanup in the South Side Superfund study area that surrounds an old smelter site in the Eilers Heights neighborhood.
For several years, the agency has been testing the yards and interiors of houses in that area for high levels of lead or arsenic. It expects to clean up the yards of 770 houses and the interiors of 536 houses by the end of 2022, wrapping up the residential part of the Superfund project.
EPA already has cleaned up the yards of 47 houses and 43 interiors where high levels of contaminants were found.
"Once we get started, we're not stopping," Benevento said, referring to the new cleanup campaign starting on March 4. The agency expects to clean up the yards of 639 houses and the interiors of 278 homes by the end of next year.
Another 140 yards and interiors would be cleaned in 2021. The agency forecasts a final 118 houses would need their interiors cleaned in 2022 — ending the residential cleanup in the Colorado Smelter Superfund area.
Benevento knows the community has been waiting to hear when the cleanup would end and the Superfund label lifted.
"In fact, we'd like to see all the work completed by the end of 2021," he added.
That would still leave the old slag heap of the Colorado Smelter to be dealt with, but the problem of being in a Superfund cleanup area would be over for local homeowners.
Benevento brought his EPA team to Pueblo on Tuesday to reassure local officials the cleanup work was not delayed by the recent partial shutdown of the federal government — and won't be if another occurs.
There are 1,700 houses in the Colorado Smelter Superfund area that EPA originally wanted to test for high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil or inside the homes. To date, 941 yards have been sampled and 452 will need yard soil replaced.
Although EPA offices were closed during the recent shutdown, the actual cleanup work is being overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. Like the rest of the Defense Department, its budget is assured through the current year.
Army Col. John Hudson, corps commander for the Omaha District, said it is routine for the Army engineers to supervise the contractors doing the cleanup work in Superfund sites.
"We have a lot of experience at this," he said.
It was last year that EPA asked for accelerated funding for the Colorado Smelter Superfund study area — which is essentially a mile-wide circle with the old smelter site in the Eilers Heights neighborhood at its center.
Sabrina Forrest, the EPA project manager, said many people in the study zone have requested yard and home testing.
It's unlikely, however, that all 1,700 homeowners will take part before the cleanup ends but the EPA is continuing to ask for interested people to contact them locally at 299-4468.