Residents who potentially have radioactive waste on their property may receive a letter from the state health department in the coming days, alerting them of the possible contamination and health risk.
Recently, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said 115 properties in and around Durango could have uranium mill tailings, which were used in the mid-1900s in construction material for things like home foundations, driveways and even gardens.
The identified properties, state health officials say, were missed during a massive, multi-million-dollar cleanup in the 1980s led by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Homeowners missed in the earlier cleanup had not been notified until this week because the state health department wanted to identify a staging area where residents could bring the contaminated waste before making the announcements.
A site has not yet been secured, but the state health department sent 115 letters Tuesday to property owners potentially affected by uranium mill tailings.
“The department wanted to make sure those 115 properties were aware and notified,” said Laura Dixon, a spokeswoman for CDPHE. “While we continue to work with stakeholders to establish an interim storage facility in Durango, residents can still take uranium mill tailings to Grand Junction for disposal.”
The department will host a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at La Plata County Fairgrounds to field questions from residents about the issue.
Surveys in the 1980s estimated about 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct, resulting in the cleanup of an estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste in homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks.
But health officials have said there has always been an understanding some properties were missed either because tailings were relocated or not fully cleaned up. In some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.
Recently, CDPHE digitized records from the 1990s, which made finding properties potentially missed easier to identify.
“The main health concern related to uranium mill tailings is radon gas, which can become trapped in structures and may lead to increased cancer risk over time,” the state’s letter says. “If tailings are found on your property, removing them is the best way to reduce potential health impacts.”
Ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there is a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys, a service it will provide free of charge.
Dixon said in the last two months, 14 residents have contacted the state health department about the issue, of which nine residents scheduled surveys.
While the DOE covered the cost of cleanup in the 1980s, this time around, residents will be on the hook to remove the radioactive waste, according to the CDPHE.
State health officials want to secure a site locally where residents can dump the contaminated material. The plan would then be for CDPHE to haul large amounts of the waste to a permanent storage facility in Grand Junction.
That effort has proven difficult. The state health department had proposed a site near Bondad, which was met with strong opposition from residents in the area. The the La Plata County Planning Commission also came out against the project in a review process.
Since, CDPHE has abandoned the site.
“We are not prepared to appeal the La Plata County Planning Commission’s decision at this time without clear direction from local authorities, as we feel strongly about the county’s authority over land use decisions,” Dixon said.
State and local 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 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. A DOE spokeswoman said in an email to The Durango Herald that a storage facility is not an allowed use at the site.
At the request of local officials, Southwest Colorado’s congressional delegates have introduced federal legislation that would require DOE to give land to the state health department for a storage facility, but that option is held up in the legislative process.