As EPA takeover looms, Park City schools ask Mitt Romney for help

Environmental Protection Agency is ready to intervene, while district asked the Utah senator to intercede

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Contaminated soil piles sit behind Treasure Mountain Junior High in Park City on August 24, 2023.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has told Park City schools time is running out to submit a formal plan for removing contaminated soil piles at Treasure Mountain Junior High.

The plan was due in January 2023, and a deadline extension passed six months ago.

If the project is not finalized by year’s end, the DEQ said the EPA will assume responsibility on Jan 1, 2024.

The piles began forming around 2017 during construction work, and employees have highlighted the need to remove them since. The piles contain lead and arsenic, remnants of Park City’s mining era. Lead is dangerous when consumed in more than trace amounts; arsenic is an airborne contaminant.

The removal plan must specify a project timeline, a contractor, where the piles will go and how public exposure to the soil will be avoided during transport. The district’s consultant responded to the DEQ last month with a plan for doing the work without EPA help, but did not include a timeline, according to a KPCW report.

The school district is holding town hall meetings in Spanish and English on Wednesday and Thursday at Treasure Mountain to update the community on the project.

District spokeswoman Heidi Matthews declined to explain how the district hopes to proceed because the plan is in draft form.

Storing the piles at the junior high violates city code and an EPA covenant. It was one of five areas of improvement the Utah Legislature outlined in a Park City schools audit in September.

The district said the piles are safe because they are covered with a cap of clean soil. Testing over the summer found the cap was not as thick as required and it contained lead levels higher than what codes allow. The district said it fixed that by adding more clean dirt.

The latest DEQ letter refuted recent public comments by Park City Board of Education President Andrew Caplan, who said the district did not know whether or not the piles needed to go and the DEQ was “still looking at it.”

The letter cites a report on his comments and outlines “factual items to clear up any confusion around the need to remove the soil piles.” It includes a timeline showing the district was first told to do so in 2022, after the DEQ learned the piles existed.

“The soil piles remain in violation of the previously cited regulations…and remain in very close proximity to both TMJH and McPolin Elementary School,” the letter says. “The direction to move these piles off-site … remains unchanged.”

Caplan did not respond to a request for comment.

At the October school board meeting, school officials did not mention the letter but said they were working with Sen. Mitt Romney’s office on funding and the project timeline.

“We have communicated to Park City School District that our office can provide information regarding federal resources, and it is the district’s responsibility to work with the EPA and follow their timelines and instructions,” said Romney press secretary Arielle Mueller.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney speaks at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Matthews said seeking help from Romney’s office was in the interest of “the least disruption to students, staff, community and environment, and ensuring judicious use of taxpayer dollars.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.