Tailing off
Efforts to clean up uranium stagnates due to pandemic, lack of staging site

Tailing off

Throughout the mid-1900s, a uranium processing mill on the edge of Durango helped the U.S. government's effort to build the first atomic bomb. But after the mill closed, the waste pile left behind posed serious environmenal and human health risks. And, to make matters worse, people started using the tailings in construction around town. Recently, health officials said about 115 properties could still be contaminated. / Photo courtesy Center of Southwest Studies

Jonathan Romeo - 08/05/2021

Back in summer 2019, Colorado’s state health department shocked the community of Durango after releasing a list of more than 100 properties in town that were missed during the massive uranium cleanup of the 1980s. Properties that now, officials said, required immediate attention.

Two years later, however, virtually no progress has been made on the effort. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, just 27 properties have been surveyed, and of that amount, only four had the presence of uranium tailings.

All told, in the past two years, less than one cubic yard of radioactive material has been removed. (A cubic yard, for reference, is about the size of two washing machines).

“We’ve been fortunate in that many properties didn’t have uranium mill tailings on them,” Tracie White, a remediation program manager for CDPHE, said. “But I don’t know if the magnitude of the issue has really changed one way or the other.”

Pinpointing exactly what happened to the cleanup effort involves several moving parts.

After first releasing the potential hotspot list, health officials were unable to secure a staging area in La Plata County where people could drop off waste locally. As a result, residents had only one option: drive 260 miles round-trip to the permanent storage facility in Grand Junction, which health officials said discouraged many people from undertaking remediation efforts.

And then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, derailing and refocusing the attention of health officials locally, as well as at the state and federal level, as they worked to contain the virus’ spread.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes (knock on wood, Delta), officials in La Plata County are still voicing concern that more than a hundred homes could have uranium contamination and pose a serious health risk.

“The problem still exists,” Gwen Lachelt, a former La Plata County commissioner from 2012-20, said. “And now it’s two years later. I just worry for people who are living with these tailings, either under their homes or on their property. I worry about people’s health.”

A walk in the park

If you’re new to town, and a lot of people are these days, you may be completely unaware Durango has a long and complicated history with uranium production and pollution. Walking the dog park? You might be interested to know you’re on a huge former uranium dumpsite that’s actively being monitored for radioactive activity. Health officials, though, maintain the area is safe.

At the height of the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb in the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill to process uranium on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park. After extracting uranium from ore, however, what’s left behind is a radioactive waste product. In Durango, this waste pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards (for reference, that’s a lot of washing machines).

Of course, the tailings pile was a huge environmental issue. On some days, winds would whip up the gray, sand-like material, and blanket town. Over the years, the pile would fail and break into the adjacent Animas River. And, the problem that remains today, people freely used the tailings for construction around town. “People didn’t understand the real danger,” local historian Duane Smith told me in 2019. “As Durango started to expand, the easiest thing to tap were those uranium piles.”

Also, it appears the uranium tailings made the perfect year-round ski area, as local legend Dolph Kuss was captured in an iconic photo skiing down the pile, in what we hope were the first and only tracks.

People, however, continued to use the free and easy-to-work-with material for roads, driveways and the foundation of buildings and homes. It wasn’t until the environmental movement in the 1970s that potential health impacts became a serious concern. In response, Congress passed a law in 1978 to clean the worst 24 uranium sites around the country, with Durango ranking the fourth most contaminated. Throughout the 1980s, a massive, multi-million dollar effort removed an estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive around town.

You missed a spot

But that doesn’t mean all the potential hotspots were cleaned up. Over the years, state and federal agencies have discovered more areas around Durango with uranium tailings that slipped through the cracks of previous cleanup efforts. But, one of the biggest announcements came in summer 2019 when CDPHE said it found an additional 115 potentially contaminated properties after re-reviewing recently digitizing records from the 1990s.

In the ensuing days, the state health department sent letters to each property owner, held meetings with city and county officials, and even hosted open houses for affected residents. Though the cost of cleanup would fall on the homeowner, the main problem, state officials said, was there was nowhere residents could drop off waste for transportation to the permanent facility in Grand Junction.

In fall 2019, CDPHE proposed a temporary staging area on property owned by the Department of Transportation, south of Durango, off U.S. Highway 550, which was adamantly opposed by nearby residents and shot down by La Plata County’s Planning Commission. Then, it appears, the issue fell off the map, according to several city and county officials interviewed for this story.

“There has been nothing since CDPHE was down (for the PC meeting),” Ted Holteen, county spokesman, said. “We are just in tow with what the state wants to do. If they’re not going to do anything, then it’s out of sight, out of mind.” Not much appears to be moving on the city’s side of things, either. “We haven’t had any discussions,” City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy said. “There wasn’t much that came out of it.”

Still a problem

CDPHE’s White said Tuesday the agency spent years looking for a proper staging facility in La Plata County, and the proposed location in fall 2019 was the last potential option. “At this point, we just haven’t been able to identify any other viable properties,” she said.

As it stands, White said health officials don’t know how many of the 115 properties are actually contaminated with uranium. It would take the request of the homeowner for a survey to be conducted. What is known, White said, are the properties were passed over in past cleanups, likely because the homeowner at the time refused work on their land, or tailings could have been relocated.

“The risk hasn’t changed,” she said. “But whether or not the tailings are there, we don’t know until we survey.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which broke out just months after the uranium issue was brought up, also threw a wrench into plans, White said. Asked if the cleanup effort will be a priority in the future, White said, “those are things we’ll reevaluate once COVID restrictions are lifted.”

Brian Devine, with San Juan Basin Public Health, said the health implications of uranium exposure takes years to surface, increasing the risk of cancers and other diseases. And, the level of risk is also highly dependent on where the tailings are located – indoors, where vapors can be trapped, is far worse than outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces.

“(The health effects are) chronic and happen over time,” Devine said. “But you can develop serious health consequences; the longer you are exposed, the bigger the risk.”

Just wanna unload

As health officials searched for a local staging area in 2019, Sen. Michael Bennet and then-Rep. Scott Tipton introduced a bill that would force the U.S. Department of Energy to allow the use of the site of the capped uranium tailings pile up County Road 210, across from Lake Nighthorse.

The DOE, for its part, has denied involvement in this project and opposed use of the site, which coincidentally, is where the waste pile previously at the dog park was moved.

No one interviewed for this story knew exactly what happened to Bennet and Tipton’s bill, other than it ended up going nowhere, dying somewhere deep in the annals of the Senate and House floors. A Bennet spokeswoman said, “If CDPHE is reporting that no uranium material is being found, then there is no need for legislation at the federal level. However, if that were to change, we could renew our efforts to move legislation forward.”

SJBPH’s Devine, too, reiterated interest was lost after attempts to find a staging area fell flat in fall 2019. “Without those pieces – a repository, public awareness, survey equipment – the program kind of died off.”

Amid calls for health officials to pick the issue back up again, however, resources are in place should homeowners want to survey their property.

“We’re here for the community, no matter what happens with the staging site,” Devine said. “But we’re also supportive of a staging location in the area because we think it would increase the number of people taking action. The easier we can make it for people, the more likely people will do that to keep their families safe."

Tailing off

Pictured here is local skiing legend Dolph Kuss taking a run down the uranium waste pile in Durango. Though filled with nasty materials, it apparently offered year-round skiing down its sandy slopes. / Photo courtesy Center of Southwest Studies