- LAura Montgomery
- This mound of dirt covers the northern face of Gold Hill Mesa. Its just waiting for a wind storm like the one on Feb. 24, which stirred up clouds that left residents sand-blasted in the eyeballs.
Over the past year, I've spent many days wandering through a wonderful new housing development springing up on our west side, a project approved by the deep thinkers on our City Council (proud motto: "More Property Tax Money Means More Shrimp at Our Christmas Party").
The development eventually will have more than 1,200 houses, and it's built on ground that was once the home to the nation's largest gold and silver mill. In the soil are an estimated 14 million tons of deadly contaminants.
But I am not afraid. And so I frequently go to check on the progress of the development and its spiffy new homes holding my notebook in my left hand, my pen in my right hand, and shielding my eyes from the sun with this brand-new hand at the end of the arm that has grown out of my back.
Welcome to Arsenic Acres.
Not that arsenic is the worst thing in the soil.
Here's what the National Safety Council says about lead, the other big treat under the new homes: "[Lead] can contaminate household dust as well as bare soil around the house, where children may play. ... All it takes is the lead dust equivalent of a single grain of salt for a child to register an elevated blood lead level."
On a more positive note, there's no Neighborhood Watch group as effective as one made up of concerned citizens with four or five eyes.
Here's more useful information from that Safety Council report: "A dog that rolls around in lead-contaminated bare soil may end up transporting some of that lead into the home."
The report didn't mention the effects on the dogs themselves. But the other day I saw a cute beagle-mix pooch that seemed healthy. He was very friendly, and I bent down and scratched him in that sensitive area that all dogs have, just above his mane. He responded with a wag of his tail and a loud moo.
Arsenic Acres the developer and people who've bought homes call it Gold Hill Mesa was once the Golden Cycle Mill. It opened in 1908, closed in 1949 and at its peak processed 800 tons of gold-rich ore every day from the gold mines of Cripple Creek. The process left millions of tons of arsenic and lead, natural elements separated from the gold. Cyanide was also used and it, too, remains in the soil.
But developer Bob Willard covered the 210-acre site with about four feet of new soil. And plastic tarps. State and local officials say that was good enough.
And then the California-based John Laing Homes started building homes under the actual banner of "More Thought Per Square Foot," a motto that narrowly beat out several other fine suggestions including, "Wow! Look at the Size of Our Kids' Heads!"
The sales office boasts 12 home models, now priced from about $290,000 to $375,000, depending on your "wish list." The choices include one called the Colorado Railroad exterior, named because of the "choo-choo" noise and deafening whistle your cat will emit about a month after he rolls in the dirt. Another model is called Story Book exterior, with the main theme being the always-popular Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid (And How She Got Her Tail)."
State health officials insist that everything will be so much better after all the houses are built and the dirt is covered with asphalt, concrete sidewalks and grassy yards. In the meantime, a two-year contract to water the dirt regularly had cut down on the flying dust until the contract recently ran out.
Soon thereafter, on Sunday, Feb. 24, heavy winds swept across the area, creating a scene that made The Grapes of Wrath seem like a gentle breeze. Huge, angry clouds of red dust blew across the development and down onto the city below, enough that one nearby resident told the Gazette it was comparable to the always-pleasant sensation of being "sand-blasted in the eyeballs."
The water-spraying truck was back on Feb. 27 and Mark Walker, a state public health official, assured the Westside Pioneer that the single incident wouldn't be harmful, but that there would be danger from "a 30-year exposure." And that's supposed to make everyone feel better, as they wash their clothes and cars for the fifth time trying to remove all the dust.
There are also two ponds in the development built to catch the toxic drainage water. The ponds have been fenced to keep the kids out, although people say before the fences, little Billy Schmidlap became something of a neighborhood celebrity when he went down with his fishing rod and caught a 6,000-pound perch. He eventually dragged it up onto the shore, using one hand to grab its antlers while using the other to grab its breasts.
And so the building continues, and people keep buying the homes, and just west of downtown, atop a mountain of funny dirt, a nice, old-fashioned neighborhood continues to grow.
What will not grow, however, are any types of fruit or vegetables. Homeowners must sign a legal notice promising not to grow anything that could be eaten, especially deep-rooted things such as fruit trees. You know, just in case and it's so unlikely, it's hardly worth mentioning the cyanide, arsenic or lead seeps through the sheet of plastic.
Because what you definitely don't want in your idyllic neighborhood is to find grandma curled up at night under a shawl, reading her new book by the bright light coming out of her homemade apple pie.
Listen to Rich Tosches each Thursday at 8 a.m. on MY99.9. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.