A temporary disposal site for uranium tailings that were once used in construction projects around Durango has been proposed south of town, but some nearby residents are not happy.
In the mid-1900s, people freely used uranium mill tailings that were piled up at the smelter in Durango, which is now the Durango Dog Park, for construction around town.
In the 1980s, a massive, multi-million dollar effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy sought to clean up the radioactive waste, which resulted in 122,000 cubic yards being removed from Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks.
But earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said more than 100 properties were missed and still require cleanup.
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.
The state, however, hasn’t been able to secure a site locally that would serve as a staging area where residents could bring the tainted material. The plan would then be for state health officials to haul large quantities for permanent storage at a facility in Grand Junction.
The lack of a temporary storage site is also the reason why property owners have not yet been notified if their homes or properties contain radioactive waste, state officials have said.
The state health department is now proposing to use a property near Bondad at 1106 U.S. Highway 550, about 20 miles south of Durango, for temporary storage. The site is owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The proposed plan would be to have a roll-off dumpster with a capacity of up to 40 cubic yards where residents can dump their waste. Once full, it will be taken to Grand Junction.
Tracie White, remediation manager for CDPHE, said the site will be blocked off with a fence and residents would have to set up a time to dispose of waste with state health officials, who would be on site.
“The health department’s goal is to make this an easy process for Durango residents and we are glad we were able to make this temporary solution a possibility,” White said in an email.
The plan would have to be approved by the La Plata County Planning Commission on Thursday.
But Brit Eaton, who said his property is closest to the proposed disposal site, said he and some of his neighbors are against the plan. He said about 20 people live within a half-mile of the proposed site.
“Why would they put anything near any humans?” he said. “They wouldn’t do it at their own house, but it’s OK to do it with other people’s.”
He also said the site is about 100 yards from the Animas River and near an irrigation ditch that serves northern New Mexico.
“It’s insane,” he said. “It’s absolute insanity.”
The state health department said it intends “to prevent contamination of surrounding areas the dumpster itself will be covered with a tarp, the ground in front of the dumpster will be covered with a tarp or other barrier, and the door to the dumpster will utilize a liner or other mechanism to ensure there is no material spilled,” county records show.
The state health department is proposing the site be used for two years until a long-term staging area is secured.
State officials have said the ideal location would be to have the staging area at the uranium tailings dump site (where the tailings from the smelter were ultimately moved and capped) up County Road 210, a few miles southwest of Durango.
The site, however, is run by the Department of Energy, which is opposed to the idea.
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.
A spokesman for Tipton ‘s office said a bill to approve the temporary site is going through a legislative process.