Little Cottonwood Canyon • It would be hard to imagine a prettier place for a Superfund cleanup, with dramatic canyon walls rising skyward beyond the colorful fall scene of copper-hued scrub oaks and shimmering, golden cottonwoods.
But, to the relief of the surrounding community, the removal of hazardous lead from a pair of 19th-century lead smelters should be done before the landscape is covered with snow.
All the metal-laced dirt has been excavated just beyond the brick-paved paths of the fancy La Caille restaurant grounds. Dump trucks and backhoes have scooped up the slag rocks and contaminated soil in the undeveloped gully that serves as a watershed protection area for Salt Lake City's utilities department.
"Hopefully, by the time we are done, you won't be able to tell we were ever here," said Thomas D. Daniels, who has overseen the cleanup of three smelter sites here over eight years.
The latest work, the third of a three-part, $12 million job, is due to be completed by the end of November, said Daniels. By October's end, crews had only to haul off the last remaining dirt piles, erase a dirt access road, contour the gully landscape and reseed areas laid bare by the cleanup.
Paul Hansen, who lives in the nearby La Montagne residential community, said many property owners questioned the need for a costly cleanup when there was no evidence that the contamination had been a problem for anyone. They also worried about traffic, dust and ruin of the natural grasses, shrubs and trees.
But now that it's done, residents look forward to seeing the gully restored to the leafy beauty of its pre-excavation days, he said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Utah Division of Environmental Remediation and Response and their contractors did a good job listening to the community's concerns about dust, traffic and restoring the vistas, he said.
"For the most part," said Hansen, "people are kind of relieved it's almost over."
A total of 29 residences were part of the cleanup since the EPA added the area to the National Priorities List aka Superfund and announced the project back in 2003.
The agency's concern: possible health impacts from exposure to high-lead areas in the triangle created by East Little Cottonwood Road, North Little Cottonwood Road and Wasatch Drive. Spot tests showed lead levels reaching 125,000 parts per million, or about 12 percent lead.
The contamination came from crude silver and lead smelters that started up in 1871 and shuttered by 1879.
The Davenport smelter operated in an area just behind the fenced property previously inhabited by the Jeffs polygamist clan. The Flagstaff smelter was on a plateau just over Little Cottonwood Creek from the La Caille grounds.
Environmental investigators also stumbled on a third smelter, used by McKay & Revolution Silver Mining Co., at the Davenport site.
Metals contaminated the bricks and soil they left behind. Sometimes they also penetrated the soil as deep as 20 feet down in one area.
Potential health concerns prompted the cleanup, as lead is linked to high blood pressure and an inability in adults to absorb Vitamin D. In children, especially younger ones who are more likely to put dirty hands in their mouths, high levels of lead in the blood are blamed for neurological damage and problems such as shortened attention spans and lower intelligence.
Too much arsenic can mean skin, liver, bladder and lung cancer, as well as skin and gastrointestinal problems, says the EPA.
The cleanup brought those levels down to 1,000 ppm in high-use areas like homes and to 3,000 ppm in little-used areas like the watershed.
Laura Briefer of the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department noted that there was some concern that if a wildfire hits the area someday, or if there's flooding, the lead could be released into the environment or into the drinking water. The Cottonwood treatment plant is just half a mile away from the 20-acre watershed area, she noted.
"This represents a balanced approach to watershed protection," she said, adding that there has been a lively collaboration between residents, the agencies and the city to make sure the trees and plants can continue doing the important job of protecting the watershed.
Dave Allison of the state's Superfund program pointed out that "a surgical approach" was used to remove contaminated soil around trees to minimize damage to the pretty landscape.
"People love the views," he said. "It's a gorgeous area."
And soon enough it will be healthy below the surface, too.
More on the Flagstaff/Davenport cleanup:
For information about the cleanup, contact Lisa Lloyd of EPA at 800-227-8917 x 6537 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Another contact is the Utah DEQ's Community Involvement Specialist, Dave Allison, at 801-536-4479 or email@example.com.
The project's website is 1.usa.gov/oNiLnK