SALT LAKE CITY — For more than three decades, a contaminated tailings pile sat unprotected on the outskirts of the southern Utah community of Leeds, exposed to the wind and possibly used for fill in nearby developments.
Both adults and children rode their all-terrain vehicles over The Pile, a popular off-roading site for enthusiasts that also contained mercury levels more than twice that of the national public health threshold.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency tried to force the owner to clean up the site, its efforts were rebuffed, with the company refusing to comply with an administrative order that sought removal of the tailings.
The federal agency was forced to step in and have the tailings capped itself, spending about $334,000 for the cleanup process. In a suit filed this month in U.S. District Court, the EPA is demanding its money back, civil penalties and punitive damages equal to at least three times its cleanup costs.
According to the suit, the tailings pile was about a mile northwest of Leeds at the 5M Staging Area Superfund site. Over the years, an estimated 8,000 cubic yards of tailings piles had been group together, containing the byproducts of the silver extraction process in the Silver Reef Mining District.
A now-inactive company is believed to have intended to reprocess the pile for any residual precious metals, but it never happened.
Back in 2008, the EPA requested to enter the site and was refused access. Although the company, Silver Reef Properties, and the agency subsequently tried to reach agreement on cleanup costs, that proved fruitless as well.
A year later, the agency issued an order demanding immediate cleanup, citing the "imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or environment," should the pile remain untouched.
Matthew Allen, an EPA spokesman in Denver, said the agency consolidated and capped the pile in place in 2010, rather than opting to remove it.
"It was deemed safer to do that," he said.