Bodo Canyon tailings site could house solar panels

The burial site of radioactive mill tailings near Durango could become the first of 11 similar sites in Colorado to host solar panels to generate electricity.

“Durango is the best site,” Deborah Barr with the U.S. Department of Energy said Thursday. “There are transmission lines nearby, the terrain is fairly level and LPEA (La Plata Electric Association) is very receptive to the idea.”

Barr, reuse program manager with the DOE Office of Legacy Management; Jalena Dayvault, general manager of DOE site operations; and John Elmer, an engineer with the S.M. Stoller Corp., a consultant to the DOE, described the solar project to a couple dozen members of the public at the LPEA quarterly meeting on alternative energy.

The Energy Department is looking for someone to build and operate a solar photovoltaic system in Bodo Canyon southwest of Durango.

The site contains 2.5 million cubic yards of tailings from a uranium mill that operated in Durango for all but three years from 1942 to 1963.

The uranium mill sat on the site of the dog park at the intersection of U.S. Highway 550 and U.S. Highway 160.

“We’ve had one formal expression of interest,” Elmer said. “But we’ve gotten a lot of telephone calls.”

The Long Term Surveillance Plan that governs post-closure sites such as Bodo Canyon had to be modified to permit a solar-energy system, Elmer said.

“No one has proposed a second use for any of the other 10 in Colorado,” Elmer said. “But we’re open to reusing as many as possible.

“These sites are going to be here forever,” Elmer said. “We should try to put them to beneficial use.”

A 20-year contract with an option for a five-year renewal is the standard agreement, he said.

A solar project would have 19 flat acres on top of the burial cell to install 4 megawatts of power. There is enough room around the cell for a 0.5-megawatt installation.

The Office of Legacy Management oversees 87 sites in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Elmer estimated the process of signing up a builder-operator would take a year. It’s not done overnight, he said.

Elmer said the experience of applicants would be a big factor in selecting a winner. He wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what the winning bid would be worth.

The Energy Department is looking for value, he said. The government isn’t looking to make money on the project.

“The criteria for awarding a contract hasn’t been determined,” Elmer said.

Nancy Andrews, an LPEA energy-management specialist, said there is interest in Durango in forming a “solar garden,” a collective of small investors interested in solar energy.

Joy Hughes who helped organize the nonprofit Saguache Solar Gardens Institute in December 2009, said her group is on the verge of creating a 200-kilowatt solar garden.

“Instead of patches of vegetables, we’re going to have patches of solar panels,” Hughes said.

Greg Munro, the CEO of La Plata Electric, said earlier this month that LPEA isn’t interested in operating a photovoltaic system. But the cooperative would lend its expertise and buy the power, he said.

Five megawatts would satisfy the demand of 6,000 homes in the LPEA service area, Munro said. The actual number would vary.

The burial site covers 120 acres and the burial cell, 42 acres. The site is covered with 7 feet of layered protective materials, including a radon membrane, a clay mat, a sand-filter drain, rocks protect against intruding vegetation and a rock/soil cap.

No radiation is detectable at the top, Elmer said.

daler@durangoherald.com