Lead and arsenic contamination can be found along some of Utah's most popular rails-to-trails pathways, according to a letter sent last month to several mayors and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
In fact, re-purposed rail routes showed heavy metals hundreds of times higher than natural background levels and more than 20 times higher than the levels that triggered another Salt Lake Valley Superfund cleanup, according to tests done for the mining company Asarco Inc., whose attorney wrote the April 15 letter. Trails where worrisome levels were detected include the:
• 9 Line Trail in Salt Lake City, approximately 900 South, west of I-15;
• Denver & Rio Grande Western Trail along the Great Salt Lake, just north of the Legacy Parkway Trail through Davis and Weber counties; and
• Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail in Park City.
Lawyer Gregory Evans called the test results "alarmingly high," and he said Utah leaders should hold Union Pacific Railroad accountable, since it spread contamination when it built rail beds with smelter waste and when the heavy metals blew off trains hauling smelter products. After all, his client has paid a $1.8 billion settlement nationwide for environmental cleanups including nearly $10 million in Utah and wants Union Pacific held accountable for its share of the contamination.
"What we're asking for here is a public response," said Evans, whose law firm has sued Union Pacific over the contamination on Asarco's behalf. "We want the boundaries of these [past lead and arsenic] cleanups to be expanded."
Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said Evans' letters contained "unsubstantiated allegations" aimed at strengthening Asarco's court arguments. He said judges have already thrown out two of Asarco's cases against the railroad company.
"Union Pacific works cooperatively with environmental regulatory agencies in the state of Utah to address environmental concerns and will continue to do so," he said in an emailed statement. "We will also continue to work pro-actively to be a responsible member of the Utah communities where we operate trains, working directly with the various cities where we serve our customers and which our employees call home."
The allegations have gotten no traction so far with the mayors of Salt Lake City, Tooele, Ogden and Park City, and they've only raised mild interest in the state's Environmental Response and Remediation Division in light of a long history of dealing with contamination from smelters and the practice of laying smelter waste as a base for the railroad tracks.
"These are not new issues we've known about lead and arsenic for years," said Brent Everett, director of the state Superfund office.
He added that some of the sample sites mentioned in Evans' letter already have been capped. He also pointed out that Union Pacific has undertaken voluntary cleanups in Utah, such as the 17-acre Welby rail yard in West Jordan.
"I'm not really sure what this attorney expects us to do," said Everett, adding that he anticipates the state will respond to Evans' letter at some point.
Vicki Bennett, sustainability director for Salt Lake City, called the railway bed pollution old news. The city, she explained, has taken steps to make sure people who use the old rail lines aren't exposed to hazards.
"You cap it with asphalt," she said. "You put a cover on it. That's pretty typical."
Plus, when a project is done at and around old rail sites, regulators test to make sure the risk of dangerous exposure is minimal, she said.
The Asarco lawyer has sent similar letters to regulators in several states, including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho.
And Washington state regulators already have asked the EPA to investigate and decide if the rail lines should be part of a Superfund cleanup near Coeur d'Alene.
Cleanups like these are triggered by health concerns about lead and arsenic.
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.
Meanwhile, too much arsenic can mean skin, liver, bladder and lung cancer, as well as skin and gastrointestinal problems, says the EPA.
In Utah, Asarco had tested 241 samples at 53 Utah locations. Results showed 174 had lead at higher than 500 parts per million. Ten of the samples revealed lead at 6,000 ppm or more, and three were above 10,000 ppm. One was 13,000 ppm.
With arsenic, Asarco found "extensive" contamination up to 2,083 ppm, with an average of 393 for all 241 samples.
Are these levels dangerous? Evans says "yes," citing the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control.
But, in practice, the EPA looks at the issue on a case-by-case basis, with an eye on who's likely to be exposed.
For instance, children's play areas with bare soil can contain no more than 400 ppm of lead.
Nonplay areas can have levels up to 1,200 ppm and still be deemed safe.
At the recently completed Superfund cleanup of an old lead-smelter site at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Utah Health Department suggested cleanup was in order when lead was 600 ppm or higher and arsenic was 126 ppm or more in a residential area where tests had shown 123,000 ppm lead and 4,690 ppm arsenic.
So far, the issue has not been discussed in the Salt Lake Valley biking community, said Chad Mullins, chairman of Bike Utah.
Dave Iltis, editor of the monthly magazine Cycling Utah, echoed that, adding: "I would like to learn more about what's going on."
Lead and arsenic in Utah
An attorney has written Utah mayors and state regulators about high levels of contamination on old railway paths, including popular rails-to-trails bike routes. The Utah Department of Health has said natural background levels of lead are 35 parts per million in Utah and 8 ppm for arsenic. The attorney, for the mining and smelter company Asarco, says his tests at 53 locations showed levels as high as 13,000 ppm for lead and 2,083 ppm for arsenic.