IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. — For decades, a creek in the mountains west of Denver sometimes ran yellow from toxic waste gurgling out of abandoned mines — a painfully familiar story in the picturesque wreckage of Colorado’s 1859 gold rush.
But after a three-decade, $62 million Superfund cleanup, Clear Creek now lives up to its pristine-sounding name, at least most of the time. In the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, the creek attracts anglers, rafters and even real estate investors.
“The actual designation of the Superfund site on Idaho Springs I would say has been, in my view, nothing but positive,” said Bob Bowland, a longtime resident and City Council member.
That offers hope for the town of Silverton, 165 miles (265.53 kilometers) to the southwest, where the federal government is embarking on another big cleanup after a massive spill from the Gold King Mine last year.
But other Idaho Springs residents warned that getting through their cleanup was wrenching, especially in the early years.
When the Environmental Protection Agency launched the project in 1983, the outside world wrongly thought the entire town was contaminated, and the community’s reputation and economy suffered, they said.
The cleanup also brought down the enormous power of the EPA on Idaho Springs, a town that even now has just 1,700 residents, and some people felt steamrolled.
“To my knowledge, not a single concern we had made a single difference in any of the analysis or outcomes,” former Clear Creek County Commissioner Nelson Fugate said.
But even these critics said the overall results were, for the most part, good.
“In hindsight, everything came out fine,” Fugate said.
Arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, manganese and zinc were washing into Clear Creek from abandoned mining sites when the EPA created the Superfund project.
“The name of Clear Creek was a joke,” Bowland said. “The creek was never clear, ever. It was just yellow.”
The EPA built one treatment plant for wastewater flowing from the mines, and a second is under construction. A concrete-and-steel bulkhead was installed inside a mine tunnel to control the flow of wastewater. Rain and snowmelt were diverted away from piles of mineral-rich waste rock so contaminants wouldn’t drain into the creek.
The results were striking, residents said.
“Nobody is saying, ‘Oh, that damn Superfund site,'” County Commissioner Tim Mauck said. “It’s almost, if anything, a source of pride and achievement.”
Mauck and others hope an influx of rafters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiast made possible by the cleanup will help stabilize a local economy still dependent on mining. A molybdenum mine may close, and officials are looking for ways to diversify.
Earlier this year, Bowland and partners bought one of the Superfund hotspots, the historic Argo gold mill in Idaho Springs. Like the previous owner, they still offer tours, but they also plan a hotel, conference center, housing and restaurants.
Mary Jane Loevlie, a partner in the project, had harsh words for the way the EPA carried out the cleanup, but she and her partners are betting that the spruced-up community will flourish.
“I’m very optimistic or I wouldn’t be investing in the Argo,” she said.
Silverton and surrounding San Juan County were reluctant to accept a Superfund cleanup in their backyard, even though nearby mines have been belching wastewater for decades.
Some worried about the stigma of a toxic-waste cleanup in a town whose economy depends on tourism. They also feared the EPA would wield outsized power over local affairs.
But the 2015 blowout at the Gold King — inadvertently triggered by an EPA-led cleanup crew — convinced residents that something had to be done, and that only the federal government could afford to do it.
San Juan County and Silverton officials toured Idaho Springs and other Colorado towns late last year and took note of Superfund pitfalls. They pressed EPA to limit the area covered by their Superfund designation.
EPA spokeswoman Nancy Graham said the agency worked hard to involve residents in the Silverton-area Superfund planning, holding public meetings, explaining technical information and listening.
“Providing early and meaningful community involvement is a cornerstone of every Superfund cleanup,” she said.
It’s too soon to know whether Silverton tourism will benefit from a cleanup the way Idaho Springs has.
Idaho Springs can tap into the 3 million people in the Denver metropolitan area just 30 miles away, while Silverton is more than six hours from Denver, in the southwest corner of the state.
Still, Silverton officials liked what they saw in Idaho Springs.
“Absolutely encouraged,” Town Administrator Bill Gardner said.