Editor’s note: This is the second of three stories about Fort Lewis College students making a documentary about uranium mining in and around Durango.By Jonathan Romeo
Herald Staff Writer
The sight of a drone equipped to detect levels of radiation flying a few feet off the ground last week at the Durango Dog Park had a few dog owners turning their heads.
So much so that the event even earned itself a space in the Durango Police Department’s blotter.
However, what some dog owners witnessed that day at the popular park near downtown Durango is a potentially promising method of detecting levels of radiation over large swathes of land.
It is also being captured in a Fort Lewis College class’ documentary about Durango’s history of uranium, a partnership between the college and Rocky Mountain PBS.
“We don’t know what our results are going to be, so it’s really exciting to follow a story along in real life without knowing how it will end,” said Stacey Sotosky, an assistant professor who teaches digital video production.
Earlier this semester, the FLC class began filming the documentary, which will premier in October. Rocky Mountain PBS is also airing a film about uranium issues throughout the state as part of the history series “Colorado Experience.”
Carol Fleisher, an award-winning documentary-maker based in Durango who is helping teach the class, said she was looking for ways to cross over into other majors that may contribute to the film.
That’s when she was introduced to John Harvey, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences who had a student, River White, looking for a project to earn a GIS certificate, which is done through an independent study or internship.
That is when the idea of attaching a Geiger counter, an instrument used for detecting radiation, to a drone was born.
“It has a lot of potential,” Harvey said. “I like it as a first foray in trying to better understand, at a level we never really did before, where radiation is in the environment.”
From 1942 to 1963, the site of the Durango Dog Park was the location of a mill that refined uranium. The Department of Energy from 1986 to 1991 embarked on a cleanup, which moved most of the uranium tailings to a site in Bodo Canyon.
However, while conceptualizing the documentary, the question arose: What if residual uranium tailings are still present at the heavily trafficked dog park, and what would be a new way to find it?
The Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
FLC’s Harvey said there are no previous examples of attaching a Geiger counter to a drone, but in theory, it is a simple and straightforward method of finding hot spots of radiation.
The goal is to fly the drone in a grid-like pattern, which effectively will create a map that will show if any elevated levels of radiation exist in the flight path, said River White, a geology major.
If the method is successful, it could be used in other areas with similar issues of radiation or other contaminates, White said. As of Tuesday, the data collected had not yet been examined.
“It’s a cool first step toward exploring how we can have a better understanding of where legacy uranium milling products might be on the landscape,” Harvey said. “This is an exciting time as far as the technology with drones.”
The process was captured by the student-led film crew, which is on its way to finishing up the short documentary to be shown Oct. 17 at the Powerhouse Science Center.
The class gathered earlier in the week at the MakerLab to film a 3-D printer making a custom piece of equipment that attached the Geiger counter to the drone, a process that ultimately took six hours.
“We are now editing and building our rough cut,” Sotosky said. “The students are going out and getting the additional components we need to complete the story.”
Fleisher, who is serving as a sort of mentor to the students, said the takeaway from the drone experiment is to always think of new and innovative ways of doing things, which many times involves unlikely collaborations. “That’s the definition of creativity: combining two things that have not been combined before. Hopefully, they’ll look for future ways of doing that.”