It turns out more than 100 properties in Durango were missed during a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup in the 1980s of radioactive waste that was once used for the construction of homes, buildings and roads.
Now, more than three decades later, the state of Colorado’s health department says these hot spots that slipped through the cracks need to be cleaned up.
“We’re now looking to raise the awareness of this potential issue in Durango,” said Tracie White, a remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s been on our radar for a while, and we’ve been laying the groundwork. Now, it’s coming into place.”
A cheap and easy materialDurango is no stranger to the issues left behind from the town’s legacy with uranium mining.
In the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park, to reprocess uranium tailings for sale to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb.
After extracting uranium, though, what’s left behind is a gray, sand-like waste product that can be filled with radioactive components, like radium and radon. In Durango, this pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards, enough to fill nearly 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Over the years, people freely used the uranium mill tailings in construction around town, said Duane Smith, a local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor. It was as easy as driving your truck up to the waste pile and taking a load.
“People didn’t understand the real danger,” Smith said. “As Durango started to expand, the easiest thing to tap were those uranium piles.”
The uranium tailings were a cheap, easy material to work with and were used for the foundation of buildings and homes, driveways and roads, including sections of Camino del Rio. The radioactive waste was even used as a substitute for sand in gardens and sandboxes.
The practice went unchecked until the tailings became a major public health concern in the 1970s, which prompted Congress to pass the “Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act” in 1978 to tackle the 24 worst uranium sites around the country.
Durango ranked in the top four.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste had been used in and around Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks, and that it would take years and millions of dollars to remove it all.
Greg Hoch, the city of Durango’s longtime planning director, now retired, said federal government officials went up and down Durango streets surveying for hot spots. In the end, most of the high-risk sites were removed and cleaned up, he said.
“Generally, the program worked, and there wasn’t a lot of controversy,” Hoch said. “It was viewed as being successful.”
But properties were missed, not just evidenced by this recent announcement from the state health department. In 1997, it was discovered that even more hot spots beneath Durango homes and streets remained contaminated by tailings, a discovery that “unsettled” the city at the time, according to The Durango Herald archives.
Records identify 115 properties at riskThis time around, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to spread the word that uranium mill tailings contamination potentially still exists on about 115 properties in and around Durango, but at this point, it’s still a bit of a guessing game.
White, with the state health department, said surveys in the 1980s estimated approximately 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct. While most were cleaned up, there has always been an understanding that some likely escaped the effort, she said.
Recently, however, CDPHE was able to home in on which properties may still pose a risk after records from the 1990s were digitized.
“Now that the records are more easily accessible and searchable, we are able to identify properties that may still have tailings remaining,” White said.
Health officials suspect properties have been passed over for a number of reasons: tailings could have been relocated, properties could have been partially but not fully cleaned or, in some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.
Home buyers and sellers are not required to test for radon or uranium issues. However, if a seller is aware of an issue, he or she would legally have to share that information, said John Wells with the Wells Group.
But ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there’s a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys. And in yet another wrinkle, that cannot happen until a disposal site is secured to take the waste – and there’s no telling when that will happen.
A question of where to dump tailingsThe plan, health officials say, is to notify property owners on the list once a local site is identified to serve as a temporary repository, which will have a container on-site where residents can dump the tailings. Once full, it will be hauled to a permanent dump site near Grand Junction.
A spokeswoman at DOE said the agency is not participating in the project.
The state’s health department in recent weeks has been working with leaders at the city of Durango and La Plata County to find the most suitable location, and a preferred option has already emerged: the disposal site on the west end of Bodo Canyon where the massive tailings pile was relocated in the 1980s.
But Jalena Dayvault, the DOE’s site manager for the Durango disposal site, said the site isn’t set up for that kind of activity. The disposal cell, which contains about 2.5 million cubic yards of contaminated material, was capped and closed in 1996 and sees little use other than regular monitoring.
And so, it appears it might take an act of Congress to gain access to the site.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. House Rep. Scott Tipton, at the request of local stakeholders, have drafted federal legislation that would require the DOE to give land to the state health department for use as a storage site for the tailings.
“The health and safety of the community is of utmost concern, which is why our office is drafting legislation to address the issues associated with disposing of the tailings,” said Courtney Gidner, a spokeswoman for Bennet.
A representative for Tipton said the office is so far in agreement with the plan.
Health risks varyThe human health risks for exposure to uranium have always been a controversial topic.
When uranium decays, it produces a radioactive gas called radon that, when inhaled, has been linked to higher rates of lung cancer. Both uranium and radon are naturally occurring and found in elevated levels in Southwest Colorado.
But Craig Little, an independent radiation protection consultant who was part of the DOE’s contracted team that conducted the first surveys of properties around Durango in the 1980s, said two factors play major roles in gauging the risk to human health.
First, exposure to radon gas isn’t an immediate health concern. Instead, it takes years of exposure for the real health risks to kick in, a reality that creates an obstacle for health experts to draw a direct line from the dangers of uranium to humans.
And second, in the case of tailings used around properties, the level of risk is highly dependent on where the tailings are located. Outside, the tailings pose virtually no risk to human health. But inside, if gas is trapped in rooms where people frequent, there can be a huge health concern.
Ultimately, Little said there’s no predicting if someone will or will not get sick. Radon, he said, just increases the chances of getting lung cancer.
“The key thing for a property owner to understand: If they think their house is one of them, test for radon,” he said. “And if your house has high radon, investigate what it would take to remove or mitigate it, and don’t lose sleep over it.”
Chris Shuey, an expert on uranium impacts to human health for the Southwest Research Center and Information Center, said it was clear early on that uranium was making the miners who spent hours and days underground sick.
Less focus has been placed on the possible implications of people living in homes surrounded by tailings, however.
“I don’t know that anyone has ever followed people who were found to be living in contaminated structures,” he said. “There’s a lot we still don’t know.”
Still, the risks of radon indoors is real, Shuey said, and is continually listed as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., behind smoking.
“It’s a very real risk, and if there are structures that used milling waste, they should take action,” he said. “If you don’t look, you don’t know.”
Aside from outright removal of tailings, radon issues can also be mitigated by creating proper ventilation in a house. Each situation is different, in terms of the levels of radon and how much it would cost to deal with the problem, and all that information remains unknown in the case of Durango’s newly identified hot spots.
But unlike in the 1980s, when the federal government covered the bill, cleanup costs this time will fall to the property owners.
Making property owners awareLocal officials contacted for this story said they were alerted a few weeks ago about the state health department’s concern more than 100 properties could still be affected by mistakes made in the past. Since, a concerted effort to educate the public and provide solutions is in the works.
That effort won’t be unveiled to the public, however, until the disposal site is secured.
“Our intent is not to alarm residents,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “But there are unmitigated sites … and it is a public health issue. Folks have a right to know whether or not their property has any tailings.”
Durango is not unique – communities across the West that once took part in America’s quest for atomic power now deal with lingering and complicated issues. In Grand Junction, for instance, tailings are far more widespread throughout town, with an estimated 6,000 affected properties, CDPHE’s White said.
In Durango, though, people have no other option at the moment than to haul the waste nearly four hours to Grand Junction, where there is a permanent disposal site.
City Councilor Dean Brookie said he supports using the Durango disposal site for the uranium tailings as a temporary staging area. He said the city intends to support Bennet’s and Tipton’s legislation.
“There’s no secret about the history of Durango, every entrance to town drove past that huge mountain of uranium tailings, where the dog park is now,” Brookie said. “If we can move a mountain, we can deal with whatever tailings still linger in our community.”
Residents who want a survey of their property for potential uranium tailings can request one by calling the state health department at (970) 248-7164 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.