Letters were sent last week to Durango-area homeowners warning of potential uranium waste on their property, but on Wednesday, only one resident attended an informational meeting led by the state health department about the possible radioactive contamination.
Laura Dixon, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the letters were sent Nov. 5, and state health officials started hearing residents received the letters in the mail Tuesday.
Since the letters went out, Dixon said the department has received three calls and two emails about the issue.
The one person in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting who received a letter declined to be interviewed.
The letters notify residents their property may have radioactive material on it, but a full survey would be required to understand the scope the problem. The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to respond to residents who received letters.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has said in recent months it has identified 115 properties that could still have uranium mill tailings on the premises. The tailings were missed during a massive, multimillion-dollar cleanup in the 1980s.
From the 1940s until the late 1960s, the radioactive waste was commonly taken from the uranium smelter in Durango and used in construction material for roads, homes and other buildings.
“Unfortunately, as with many communities in the western U.S. … it wasn’t controlled very well,” said Joel Doebele with CDPHE.
Health officials are now concerned these properties could have elevated levels of radon or other dangerous gases, which can increase the risk of cancer.
One of the main holdups in notifying residents has been finding a temporary site where people can drop off contaminated material, which would eventually be hauled to Grand Junction for permanent storage.
State and local officials have said the ideal location would be at the uranium tailings dump site (where the tailings from the smelter were moved and capped) on County Road 210, a few miles southwest of Durango, but it could take up to two years to receive approval to use the area.
A proposal to create an interim site near Bondad was opposed by residents, and ultimately scrapped.
Durango City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy said city staff and councilors plan to meet in executive session next week to evaluate other potential properties that could be used for this purpose.
Doebele said most of the identified properties may still have radioactive contamination because they didn’t qualify for remediation in the 1980s or they were not fully cleaned up. The records were recently digitized, which allowed for a new review.
Because the records are so dated, Doebele said not every one of the 115 properties will have an issue. At the same time, it’s also possible some properties that are not on the list have uranium mill tailings.
Anyone who received a letter or who may be concerned tailings are on their property can contact the state health department for a free survey.