Pueblo, Colorado, is a low-income, predominantly Mexican-American community once powered by its coal-based and steel economy. Historically known as the “Steel City,” Pueblo has suffered a steep, half-century-long industrial decline. Pollutants from the steel industry, including the Colorado Smelter, a lead and silver smelter that operated in Pueblo over 100 years ago, have led to learning disabilities, behavioral issues, hearing loss, and other significant health issues among children. Such health risks confronting this already underserved and overburdened community spurred the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the Colorado Smelter a Superfund Site in 2014. While EPA has been able to expedite removal of certain levels of lead and arsenic in residential areas, there have been ongoing tensions with community members over EPA’s clean-up standard and site sampling, and whether they are sufficient to address the significant public health risk, as well as the impacts from the Superfund designation on property values. These concerns have been particularly troubling for a community already facing disproportionate challenges in both areas.
Since early 2020, CBI’s Ryan Golten has facilitated the Community Advisory Group (CAG) for the Superfund Site. Through the CAG, CBI works with community members, as well as partners from the EPA, the State of Colorado, and the local health department, to discuss site-related public health, economic, and environmental issues in a community forum. One goal has been to work past traditional bureaucratic siloes that have hindered political and agency leaders from addressing pervasive public health problems through a holistic lens. The Superfund site is just one among many contributors of industrial contamination in an overburdened community lacking resources and capacity to address these significant issues on its own. In facilitating the CAG, CBI helps EPA, community members, and other local and state partners contend with what principles of environmental justice mean for the Superfund site in the broader context. This has meant navigating the balance between maintaining the CAG’s federally mandated focus on the Superfund site, on the one hand, while also ‘connecting the dots’ with other community sources of lead exposure to avoid perpetuating artificial siloes on the other.
EPA has put significant resources in recent years into cleaning up contamination in disadvantaged neighborhoods once home to the families of smelter, steel mill, and mine workers. In addition, over the past six months, new funding from the federal infrastructure bill has resulted in the ramping up of EPA’s efforts to study and remediate the other half of the site. Meanwhile, CBI is working with the CAG to turn its attention increasingly to environmental justice more broadly. CAG meetings now regularly include discussions of relevant environmental justice initiatives, including EPA’s new national lead strategy and partnership with the State of Colorado to focus efforts on under-resourced, disproportionately affected communities like Pueblo.
The CAG is finding increasing ways to use EPA’s leverage, through Superfund, to address how other efforts can support human and environmental health in Superfund neighborhoods. City staff have been invited to CAG meetings to discuss the City’s master plan, what it means for future reuse of the site, and how Superfund grants can support and accelerate local visioning and revitalization of the former smelter site. Likewise, concerns about toxic air emissions and Pueblo’s higher-than-average rates of childhood asthma, lung disease, and cancer have led the CAG to brainstorm with local and state public health programs how they might supplement EPA’s air monitoring, given the Superfund program’s limited ability to sample beyond potential site-specific contaminants. In these ways, the CAG is becoming a forum not only to provide input to and raise concerns with EPA regarding its management of the former smelter site, but to promote a “whole of government” approach to support not only Superfund neighborhoods but the whole community.