Aspen celebrates victory over EPA
A local citizen on Thursday proposed a monument to Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper at the intersection of Mill and Main streets in Aspen, in honor of her 10-year struggle to get the Smuggler Mobile Home Park and surrounding area delisted from the roster of federal Superfund projects.
The proposal, by Morry Hollenbaugh, was greeted by hoots and loud applause from the assemblage at the Common House at the Independence Place affordable housing complex, celebrating the end of Aspen’s epic and precedent-setting battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The occasion was marked by speeches by some of those involved in the battle, including the EPA’s regional administrator, Bill Yellowtail, who declared, “This is a community that’s taken charge of your own destiny,” despite the obstacles put up by “the awful bureaucracy and agony of being a Superfund site.
“We came into the community sort of innocently,” continued Yellowtail, a remark that prompted loud laughter and more hoots.
“Well, ignorant,” he amended. “We have come away from Aspen … educated.”
He said Aspen’s battle to convince the EPA that the Smuggler site was not a health threat has become a “model” for the agency’s dealings with communities all across the country. “Community involvement is now the model. I’d call it the Aspen model. You have taught us how to do business differently,” he said.
Another speaker at the event was former Mayor John Bennett, who once pledged to stand in front of the EPA’s bulldozers rather than let the agency tear up a local neighborhood based on questionable grounds.
Citing a former EPA official who declared nine years ago that “it will be a cold day in hell when the delist this site,” Bennett looked around and yelled, “Well, it’s cold! Although I think we’re closer to heaven than hell.”
Aspen was officially delisted by the EPA on Sept. 23, bringing to an end a fight that started in 1983 when a researcher’s investigation into the mine tailings and other debris left over from Aspen’s silver mining heyday led to the conclusion that the neighborhood was polluted with toxic heavy minerals and other hazardous wastes that posed a threat to the health and welfare of the citizenry.
The EPA began making plans for “remediation” of the site, meaning the uprooting of the mobile home park and the scraping of up to four feet of topsoil from roughly 110 acres to remove the contaminated soils.
It was not until the late 1980s, as federal crews began making plans to start the work, that local residents began to publicly question the validity of the plan.
Led by Clapper, a resident of the mobile home park, and local environmental health official Tom Dunlop, the neighborhood rose up in anger. With the help of the city and county, the neighborhood eventually wrestled the federal agency to a standstill by producing expert evidence to contradict the EPA’s own findings.
The EPA rethought its position, issued a set of “institutional controls” for local residents to follow any time they want to dig down into the ground, and pulled Aspen off the Superfund list.
Aspen was the first of only three cities in Colorado to be delisted by the EPA in this way, out of a total of 19 Superfund sites in the state, according to Yellowtail.
Clapper, after thanking many of those present for hanging in through what she called “a true community grass-roots effort” to fight off the EPA, announced to the assembled crowd, “We are going to do this right.”
She promised that a celebratory community barbecue will be held next spring at Molly Gibson Park, which is located at the base of Smuggler Mountain and was created in part out of contaminated rock and earth from various locations that have been covered to contain the contamination.
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