After Feb. 24 dust storm
Water truck back at Gold Hill Mesa

       A water truck was back on the Gold Hill Mesa development site Feb. 27 after about a two-month absence.
       The 5,000-gallon-per-hour spray, combined with the installation of temporary plastic fencing, will reduce the likelihood of dust plumes like those that blew off the 210-acre site Feb. 24, according to developer Bob Willard.
       “I take responsibility for that,” he said of the dust. “That wind storm was terrible.”
       On that, he'll get no argument from Westsiders, who recall how the Golden Cycle mill processed gold ore at the site off 21st Street and Fountain Creek, leaving its fine mill tailings open to the winds for almost half a century before (and even a few years after) closing in 1949. One long-time resident, Bob Edgar, said the Sunday dust flurries “were worse than what it was when the mill was operating.”
       John “Skip” Sherbak, a former worker for the Midland Terminal railroad (which brought the ore from Cripple Creek to Golden Cycle), said that back then such dust storms “were why the Westside never developed for years.”
       Mark Walker of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said this week that a single incident like that on Feb. 24 does not pose a health threat, but it would become one if such problems continue. “The danger would come from a 30-year exposure, breathing the dust every day,” he said.
       Water trucks, often three at a time, had been wetting down Gold Hill Mesa since grading for the residential-commercial development started in spring 2005. However, in early January, a contract for that service ended, and Willard and his staff delayed its resumption while they researched other options (such as a sprinkler system) that might be less expensive than the roughly $8,000 a month the three trucks had been costing.
       Economizing has been a consideration for the project, in view of the housing slump that started last summer, shortly after the first Gold Hill homes went on the market. But Willard agreed that shutting off the water may not have been prudent, considering that the first quarter of the year is usually the windiest here.
       A new financial problem arose about two weeks ago when Willard learned that the project's major lender was having financial difficulties. This put a temporary crimp in his cash flow - a situation he said he is working out this week with the lender's lender. He emphasized that the development itself is not in trouble. Similar reorganizations have happened five times in the 10 years since he started planning Gold Hill Mesa, he pointed out. “We haven't done anything wrong. If they [the lender's officials] don't fund us to some degree, it undermines their own collateral.”
       He faces no government penalties for the recent dust problem. This stems from the nature of the project, based on interviews with Willard and Mark Walker of State Health.
       Despite the tailings (which include arsenic and lead), the Environmental Protection Agency decided in 1994 that the site was not hazardous enough to become a Super Fund cleanup site. As a result, the state could not require a full site cleanup as part of the Gold Hill development; however, the site's contamination does qualify it for certain scrutiny as a “brownfield” site, and Willard went to the state several years ago to find out what he needed to do to meet the guidelines of State Health's Voluntary Clean-up Program (VCUP). In addition to watering, the VCUP at Gold Hill includes such measures as capping lots with several feet of topsoil, preventing tailings from getting into Fountain Creek and constant measuring of air quality on the site. He has also gotten some state loan assistance for the creek improvements.
       The temporary plastic fencing is a few feet high and goes across areas where winds have been known to blow. The plastic will “help keep the dust from turning into such a billowing cloud,” Willard said.
       Walker (who heads up the state's VCUP program) and Willard also pointed out that most of the dust did not blow off the developed part of Gold Hill Mesa filings (including the 152 current building lots), but from the as-yet-unbuilt eastern part of the property.
       Because that area comprises about a third of the project area, Willard said that a single water truck should be sufficient now, instead of three. He plans to keep the truck on site, no matter how long it takes to work the current financial details out, he said.
       The eastern area is included in the development's master plan, but Willard cannot predict how long it will be before houses go in there. “It's all market-driven,” he said.
       In all, Gold Hill Mesa plans about 1,000 homes, plus a 67-acre commercial area southeast of 21st Street and Highway 24.
       Walker said that on the whole the state is pleased with what Gold Hill Mesa is doing, because the end result will be stabilizing the property. “We're very anxious for this to proceed,” he said. “Let's hope those houses keep selling.”

Westside Pioneer article