How Salt Creek Pueblo Was Stripped Of Its Rights, And Why Activists Are Struggling To Get It Back

220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
Salt Creek, left, and another channel of water flow together from the property of the Evraz Steel Plant in Pueblo.
220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
Salt Creek flows alongside Roselawn Road below Santa Fe Drive on the east side of Pueblo, downstream from the Evraz Steel Plant property.

Velma Campbell, a physician, long-time Pueblo resident and volunteer with Front Mothers, said.

At the center of the Creek certification draw is a permit examination conducted by a state hearing officer in 1978. His conclusion, according to the report: Salt Creek is an intermittent natural stream and tributary of the Arkansas River that feeds into a river’s “old, natural drainage area.”

According to the hearing officer’s report, the steel mill was draining about 70 million gallons of water per day into the Arkansas River. The company brought that water from its tanks to Salt Creek, which was flowing in and out of the steel mill’s property. The water was then treated and discharged into the river.

After the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the state began strengthening regulations on air and water pollution. Colorado passed its own water quality law in 1973. Besides classifying Salt Creek as a natural stream, the new rules mean that the mill must treat all wastewater before it re-enters the creek.

Colorado Fuels and Irons opposed the designation, pushing a bill by a Pueblo Republican lawmaker that would change the state’s drainage rules, said Bill Oberle, who oversaw the permits as the state’s associate director for environmental programs.

Bill 1979
Title page for a portion of the state’s 1979 legislation that critics said would have resulted in disorderly dumping in Colorado.

Oberle said he and other state environmental officials fear the legislation could lead to unregulated dumping of sewage into small streams across Colorado.

“It was great Oh ohOberle, now 77, said of the proposed legislation. “If this becomes law, our responsibilities to the people of Colorado, we thought, would be seriously compromised.”

This concern, he said, has led to direct discussions with Colorado for fuel and iron.

In 1979, the state and the steel mill struck a deal. Officials reversed the hearing officer’s findings and lowered Salt Creek’s rating from a natural stream to a “channel,” according to state documents signed by Oberle. By losing its status as the state’s waterway, Colorado Fuel and Iron will no longer have to treat wastewater entering Salt Creek.

The steel mill agreed to monitor the levels of cyanide, ammonia and phenol in the creek, just some of the pollutants regulated by the state. Records showed that the state extended the agreement with current owner Evraz in 2018, nearly 40 years after the original agreement. His renewal caught Campbell’s attention.

220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
Environmental activists Velma Campbell, left, and Jaime Valdez near the point where Salt Creek flows from the property of the Everse steel plant.
220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
The Evraz Steel Plant and Slag Mountain can be seen from a street in the Salt Creek neighborhood on the east side of Pueblo.

“If any company is going to be allowed to discharge their aquatic products into the creek, they should be asked, at the very least, not to further deteriorate the water quality in the creek,” Campbell, 74, said overlooking Salt Creek earlier this year.

A coalition of environmental groups asked for help from students at CU Boulder’s Getches-Green Natural Resources Clinic, Energy and Environmental Law Writing e-mail to the state, requiring it to immediately review the plant’s drainage permit and ensure that the water quality in Salt Creek is protected. Student Tess Udall said the reclassification of the creek was an environmental injustice.

“[The creek has] “I was there for a long time, … treated differently for a long time, alongside communities that are often left out of public conversations,” said Udall, 31.

For decades, Salt Creek residents have complained about poor water quality, unrestricted dumping and a lack of political attention directed to the rest of the pueblo. The Hispanic and low-income community, with a third of its residents earning less than $15,000 a year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. EPA data also shows that it is vulnerable to multiple environmental threats.

“We are a forgotten little area,” said Chavez of Fulton Heights Community Center, where she has worked most of her life.

220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
Jovita Chavez at Fulton Heights Community Center, where she has worked for more than 40 years.
220419-SALT-CREEK-EVRAZ-PUEBLOHart Van Denburg / CPR News
From left, Velma Campbell, Jovita Chavez and Jaime Valdez look at decades-old photographs and memorabilia on the walls of Chavez’s office at Fulton Heights Community Center.

Records show that water entering the Arkansas River still has pollution problems. Records submitted by the mill to the state show several violations of the federal Clean Water Act in the past three years, including high levels of oil, grease and other substances in the water.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Water Quality Control, Irene Garcia, said the state has not imposed a fine on the plant for these violations. The department’s engineers examined the plant’s wastewater treatment as recently as February, and issued a report recommending adding more absorbent barriers to absorb pollutants from entering the creek.