The city of Durango may test for radon at a proposed homeless camp, but residents and the state health department say the test will not answer all the questions about radioactive materials on the former uranium mill site.
Durango City Council voted in April to establish a camp for homeless residents west of the Durango Dog Park.
However, it is “yet to be determined” whether homeless campers will move to the former uranium mill site parallel to Lightner Creek from a site near Greenmount Cemetery, Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said in an email to The Durango Herald. It is also unknown how much a radon test might cost, he said.
Campers cannot stay at the Greenmount Cemetery site long term because it was acquired as open space to preserve the viewshed, Councilor Dick White said.
The council anticipated having more time to weigh options for a homeless camp while campers were staying at Escalante Middle School during the 416 Fire evacuations. But they had to make an immediate decision about where campers could stay when the evacuations ended, White said.
“The situation was changing by the hour,” he said.
Right now, there are no good vacant properties for homeless residents to stay, he said.
The site near the dog park poses unanswered health questions because radioactive materials remain on site, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The state restricts the use of the property through an environmental covenant.
City councilors directed city staff to explore the possibility of testing the site for radon, a cancer-causing gas, in June. Prior to the June meeting, city officials said they did not plan to complete any testing at the site.
However, testing just for radon would not determine whether the site is safe for habitation, said Meghan Hughes, a spokeswoman with CDPHE. It is also difficult to perform a test for radon without a structure, she said. An appropriate study of the site would require extensive soil and groundwater sampling, she said.
The city has not had any formal communications with the CDPHE since May, when health officials recommended in a letter to the city that it do a full health-risk assessment, she said.
“If the city does decide to proceed, it would be advisable to contact CDPHE to best determine a path forward in order to protect human health and the environment and thus not violate the terms of the environmental covenant,” Hughes said in an email to The Durango Herald.
Durango resident Lynne Sholler sent the city a letter in June encouraging officials to do a full health assessment, in part, because thorium is one of the contaminants that remains at the site. Inhaling thorium dust can cause lung, pancreatic and bone cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It would seem to be more proactive and a best practice to find out in advance if there is any issue,” she said.
The city could face legal challenges if any of the campers become sick, and the cost of a lawsuit could be far more than a health-risk assessment, said Sholler, a lawyer.
“We know the city is facing financial challenges as it is; one or more lawsuits will exacerbate those shortfalls, tarnish the reputation of our city and negatively impact tourism,” she wrote in her letter to the city.
Travis Stills, an environmental law attorney, has similar concerns about not fully testing the site and not knowing the health risk.
“Ignoring the risk does not make it go away,” he said in an email to The Durango Herald.
Councilor White could not say when City Council will discuss radon testing again. But he expects funding for testing could play into the decision, especially because the city is expecting to make budget cuts following the 416 Fire, he said. If the city decides to test, it could be a lengthly process, which could be problematic.
“In the bigger picture, it’s a small risk compared with what the homeless deal with everyday,” he said of radon.