When the city of Boulder buried radium-contaminated soil years ago at Allied Chemical’s Valmont Butte mill site, it carried serious ramifications.
Ramifications that continue to haunt the site.
Now, the 102-acre property is owned by the City of Boulder, which purchased the land and closed-down mill in 2000. But the city’s connection to the contamination on the property, and at least some of its responsibility for the site’s ultimate cleanup costs, goes back more than 40 years — long before that questionable real estate deal.
In October 1971, the Housing Authority of the City of Boulder (predecessor to Boulder Housing Partners) began breaking ground on a vacant lot at Third and Pearl streets to build a 34-unit, low-income housing complex.
The lot had previously been the location of the old city yards, used primarily to park city vehicles and store other maintenance materials. According to a 12-page summary report filed with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), a resident living in the area saw the excavation getting under way and notified the Housing Authority that “a tungsten-radium mill had been in operation at the Third and Pearl site in 1918 and that the area might be radioactive.”
This notification by a concerned citizen, whom later reports would identify as a former employee of the mill, seems to be the first clue that something was wrong at the construction site. It appears city officials may not have considered how the location had been used prior to purchasing the land near the mouth of Boulder Canyon and establishing the city yard and, later, the housing project.
In that sense, the Third and Pearl site seems to have something in common with Boulder’s more recent acquisition of the Valmont Butte location. In both instances, the municipality seems to have bypassed — or disregarded — a thorough search of public records prior to spending taxpayer money to purchase seriously contaminated properties that subsequently required substantial dollars to remediate.
Had such a search been conducted on the Third and Pearl site, the city would have discovered that it was the former location of a radium mill. In fact, had the records been carefully examined, the city would likely have discovered that there were a total of 13 closely clustered locations that had all been either tungsten or radium mills, or areas where radioactive soil was dumped as a result of milling operations. The area containing the contaminated locations is bordered by Pearl Street on the north, Ninth Street on the east, Arapahoe Avenue on the south and the first quarter mile of Boulder Canyon to the west.
These sites were part of a total of 40 radium-contaminated locations in Colorado eventually identified by the CDPHE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the late 1970s.
In media accounts from that time, Al Hazle — who was head of the state health department’s division of radiation and hazardous wastes — said that, “due to a lack of funding, only one site had been cleaned up.” Presumably that “one site” was Third and Pearl. Hazle also estimated that clean-up of all of the radium sites could cost as much as $25 million — money that, depending on who you asked, the state didn’t have or was at least unwilling to allocate for such a purpose.
As a result of this perpetual lack of funding, it appears that much of the contamination at the 13 sites, with the exception of Third and Pearl, has been left in place and in some instances covered with clean fill dirt. The best documented of these remaining sites is the radium-contaminated area along the bike path near Boulder Creek between the children’s fishing pond east of the Justice Center and the sculpture park farther to the east.
In 1983, what was then known as the Colorado Department of Health (CDH) recommended that the contaminated soil in “hot spots” along the path be removed from the area. However, it appears that instead of removal, contamination was simply covered in place by clean fill dirt. At the time, it was considered a temporary measure until a longterm solution — and hopefully more money — could be found. It is unclear if any further clean up was ever done.
The remediation of those sites — or lack thereof — is a story for another day. As for what transpired at Third and Pearl in 1971, after the city had been notified that its low-income housing site was radioactive, a member of the CDH was quickly dispatched to measure radiation levels on Oct. 4 of that year. While most of the radioactive materials were considered moderate to low-level, according to media accounts at the time, some were found to be as high as 20,000 times background levels. As a result, the Boulder City/County Health Department (BCCHD) — now Boulder County Public Health — issued a cease-and-desist order, prohibiting further construction activity on the site until a clean-up plan was in place for the contaminated areas. After emergency meetings that included the city, the CDH and BCCHD, among others, officials decided that the most highly contaminated material would be placed in 55-gallon drums and shipped to a licensed radioactive disposal facility in Nevada operated by Nuclear Engineering Inc. They determined that the low-level contaminated soil would be sent to Allied’s Valmont Butte site, where it would be buried somewhere on the property.
In order to accept the city’s radium contamination, Allied had to request an amendment to its radioactive materials license, which was already in place as a requirement for storing its radioactive tailings in the 17-acre primary tailings pond at the site. The amendment was issued by the CDH on Oct. 22, and the first truckloads of radium-tainted soil arrived at the butte four days later.
By Oct. 28, 57 truckloads of contaminated soil had been removed from Third and Pearl and taken to the Allied property.
The original plan called for the contaminated soil to be buried in a 90-foot ditch. However, by Nov. 3, the 90-foot ditch was full, and the trucks were still coming. According to the 12-page report from the CDPHE, “Due to the overwhelming amount of soil thus far removed, it was necessary, at Allied’s request, to dig a second pit for soil disposal. This was done by the Fagre Construction Company.”
By the end of the Third and Pearl remediation on Nov. 11, between 150 and 200 truckloads of radium-contaminated soil had been buried in at least two pits on Allied’s Valmont Butte property. This equates to approximately 1,500 to 2,000 cubic yards of radium-tainted soil. Third and Pearl was, for the most part, now a clean site. But the problem with its transplanted contamination was just beginning.
As pointed out in Part 3 of The Ghosts of Valmont Butte series, since the Superfund laws were enacted in 1980, the EPA has used four criteria to determine who has to pay for remediation costs at a contaminated site. The short version is this: If you authorized moving contaminated material to the site, if you transported contaminated material to the site, if any of the material at the site is attributable to you, or if you are the owner of the site, you can be named as a potentially responsible party (PRP). Even if a PRP only qualifies for one of the four criteria, that party can still be held financially responsible for the entire costs of cleaning up a site. It then falls to the PRP to sue other parties that may also be responsible for contaminating the site to help with clean-up costs.
As a result, the decision by the city to move the Third and Pearl contamination to Allied’s Valmont Butte site some 40 years ago most likely sealed its fate as a party responsible for at least some of the eventual remediation costs, down the line. And if Third and Pearl weren’t enough to guarantee it would be laying out taxpayer money to clean up the butte someday, the city decided to double down and became the sole owner of the contaminated property in 2000. As a result, taxpayers are already into the property for more than $5 million dollars, and that number could soar higher as the full extent of the actual contamination becomes more clear.
The City of Boulder purchased the property in 2000 for more than $2.5 million, and has subsequently committed another $2.5 million to the site’s initial cleanup plan. The previous owner of the property shelled out just $700,000 for the parcel in 1994. In other words, the city paid nearly three and a half times more than the previous owner for the contaminated property, just six years later, and it didn’t even bother to get an appraisal for the property at the time. Had the city gotten an appraisal, it likely would have discovered that the potential liability for the contamination exceeded the value of the land.
The $2.5 million in clean-up costs that has been committed to the butte thus far is primarily for the Voluntary Cleanup Plan (VCUP), which has been approved by the CDPHE. The plan calls for moving earth at the butte this month. As part of the VCUP, the city and its clean-up partner Honeywell — which inherited Allied’s responsibility at the site when it purchased the company — are scheduled to move much of the contamination currently scattered across the property into the 17-acre primary tailings pond before capping it.
The city’s property has a variety of contamination, including lead, the Third and Pearl radium soils, radioactive hotspots and contamination from a secondary tailings pond that is to be transferred into the primary tailings pond, which already contains approximately 427,000 tons of radioactive tailings that includes heavy metals such as lead and arsenic (see map here).
Once everything has been moved into the primary tailings pond, the city and Honeywell intend to construct a dirt cap on the pond and then cover the dirt with rocks approximately eight inches in size. The rocks are intended to keep prairie dogs from burrowing into the contamination below the soil cap and releasing lead and radioactivity as air-borne hazards, which has happened repeatedly in the past. The project is estimated to cost $5 million, which will, at least for now, be split by the city and Honeywell.
But the EPA has recommended a cap that is also capable of lessening the potential threats associated with water, a cap that would help prevent surface water and rain from soaking into the contaminated tailings below and pooling in the primary tailings pond. The EPA’s 2005 reassessment of the site has already determined that such pooling of subsurface water is already occurring in the pond. The cap that Honeywell and the city intend to build over the primary tailings pond is not such a water-resistant cap, which would cost more to construct. The issue of the cap is important, as it plays directly into the Third and Pearl soils situation.
As previously reported in this series, there is considerable debate as to where exactly the city’s Third and Pearl radium-contaminated soil was buried in 1971. Three different locations have been identified in the public record and by persons familiar with the Allied site. But after researching the site for more than two months, Boulder Weekly’s investigation has come to a different conclusion. We believe that there is strong evidence that a fourth location that we have identified may well be the actual location. For the purposes of this article we will refer to these differing supposed radium disposal locations as the city pit, the Valmont Butte Corporation (VBC) pit, the EPA pit, and the Boulder Weekly pit.
The EPA pit is identified in the agency’s 2005 reassessment of the Allied site.
The report even shows radioactive readings (Albeit near background levels) taken at this location by the EPA’s contractor.
The general area of the EPA’s supposed pit location received some confirmation recently during an interview between Boulder Weekly and Tom Hendricks. Hendricks is likely more familiar with the Allied property than any other living person. He first came to the mill to apply for a job as a college student in 1969. He didn’t get the job, but later, in 1977, he would convert Allied’s fluorspar floatation mill into a mill capable of crushing his own gold ore from the Cross Mine in Caribou. By this time, the mill had been sold to a company called Tusco, which leased the mill to Hendricks.
Hendricks may have come somewhat late in the mill’s long history, but his friend and mentor, Al McGowan, had been there from the beginning.
McGowan worked at the mill when it was first established as a gold operation by St. Joe Mining Company, in 1935. He later became the mill’s general superintendent for Allied Chemical. By the time Allied shut down its operations in the 1970s, McGowan had started his own ore-testing company, which he moved to the Allied site, where he was given free work space. It was McGowan who showed Hendricks how to convert the mill from a fluorspar operation to a gold mill. And it was primarily McGowan — along with other former Allied mill employees who had gone to work for Hendricks — who informed him about the long history of the site, including its history of contamination.
In the Boulder Weekly interview, Hendricks looked at a map of the site where he had spent almost every day for 15 years, and examined the various locations that others were claiming to be the burial site for the Third and Pearl soils. Hendricks pointed to the EPA’s disposal location on the map and said it was “just about right.” Hendricks is about as close as it comes to an eyewitness after 40 years.
As for the Valmont Butte Corporation pit, the description of this supposed resting place for the Third and Pearl soils comes from a document titled “Valmont Butte Corporation Environmental Report,” dated Oct. 10, 1996. While it is unclear from the description where exactly the corporation is claiming the pit is located, it is clear that it is not at any of the other proposed sites.
The corporation’s environmental report states, “We have also covered the area where the city of Boulder buried the waste from the 3rd and Pearl site with approximately 25 feet of clean fill dirt, by extending the upper level out and over the disposal site.”
If this claim is to be believed, then the pit would have to be located under the front edge of the existing 20- to 25-foot slope that runs between the EPA pit and the city pit. It should be pointed out that Valmont Butte Corporation’s environmental report appears to have been prepared for the purpose of convincing the CDPHE that the state should terminate the company’s required hazardous materials license, which was at the time required to be attached to the property as long as the hazardous tailings and the Third and Pearl soils were stored at the site.
Eventually, the state terminated that license, clearing the way for the Valmont Butte Corporation to sell the land to the city of Boulder for roughly three and half times what it had paid for the parcel just a few years earlier. But it is clear that many of the claims put forth by Valmont Butte Corporation in gaining that license termination have subsequently been proven to be wrong.
According to Bill Boyes, the city’s facilities maintenance program manager, and Joe Castro, director of facilities and fleet management — the two city officials spearheading the clean-up efforts at the butte property — the location of the city pit was chosen for a number of reasons. There are several documents filed in various health departments that seem to indicate that the disposal pit was near the western edge of the primary tailings pond. And, in the best piece of evidence to date, city officials point to an aerial photo taken in 1971 that seems to show some type of ditch activity taking place directly in front of the western end of the tailing pond (see 1971 aerial photo on page 14).
Giving the photo even more credence, it was, according to Colorado Aerial Photo Service, taken on Nov. 14, 1971. That date, according to the 12-page CDPHE summary report, would have put the photo being snapped exactly in the span of time when the Third and Pearl radium-contaminated soil was being buried at the Allied site. Very strong evidence indeed.
Based on the above evidence, the city and Honeywell believe that they have found a very convenient and cost-effective way to deal with the radium soil problem. Instead of having to dig up at least 150 dump-trucks worth of contaminated soil and move it into the primary tailings pond before capping the pond, they have simply planned within the VCUP to extend the cap to the west to incorporate the site where the city thinks the radium is located.
On Feb. 22, Castro told Boulder Weekly that Boulder officials believe the radium pit is within the trapezoidal area (see map here) designated as the area to be capped, labeled as the primary tailings pond. He further said city officials don’t believe that the EPA and Hendricks are correct in their assessment of the pit’s location.
City officials have told Boulder Weekly that they have never actually dug down into the city pit and taken appropriate radiation measurements that would once and for all determine if the radium is actually located in that site.
The location of the Boulder Weekly pit is based on much of the same evidence the City of Boulder used to choose the location of the city pit. A crudely produced hand-drawn map created in 1976 (see map on page 14) by persons sent to take a reading from the actual disposal pit illustrates the location.
We believe that the aerial photo taken in 1971 does capture the Third and Pearl radium-contaminated soil being buried. However, we also believe, based on this photographic evidence, that the city has incorrectly identified the location of the radium contamination pit. In fact, the entire primary tailings pond cap being proposed in the VCUP only covers a portion of the area actually covered by the primary tailings pond, shown in the 1971 photo as the area under water. Other aerial photos from different years likewise show that, at one time, the tailings pond extended considerably farther to the west than where the proposed VCUP cap is going to be placed. While Boulder Weekly and the city are relying on the same aerial photo, we believe the city misinterpreted how far west the pond stretched.
Based on the photographic evidence, we have created a map of the Valmont Butte site showing the area that in 1971 was covered by the tailings pond waters, as well as overlaying the outline of the city’s VCUP primary tailings pond cap area (see map on page 14).
By using fixed points in the aerial photo that have not changed over time, such as the northeastern corner of the Valmont Cemetery and the road near its corner, the western end of the primary tailings pond dike dam and other definable areas of the dike that are in the same location today, Boulder Weekly was able to identify the site.
We should point out that the high-resolution photo we acquired from Colorado Aerial Photo Service shows a fairly significant area being worked. It shows the Boulder Weekly pit area, but it also looks like another pit may be in the area of the EPA pit. In this photo, the city pit would be considerably to the east and under water. The photo offers strong evidence, but only additional digging and testing will find the two or more pits containing the Third and Pearl radium.
This is crucial, because as of now, despite the controversy over where the Third and Pearl radium-contaminated soils are actually buried at Valmont Butte, it is the city and Honeywell’s intention to proceed as early as this month with construction of the primary tailings pond cap as the final remediation of the Third and Pearl soils. But what if they are wrong as we and the EPA believe?
One thing is for sure: The city’s current solution is definitely the cheapest solution, far less expensive than having to find and relocate at least 150 dumptruck loads of radioactive soil into the primary tailings pond.
But cheapest isn’t always the best when it comes to radioactive contamination.
It seems incomprehensible that neither the city nor Honeywell are willing to spend the money necessary to confirm that their supposed location of the radium is the real location, and that the rest of us are wrong.
Is this guesswork-type handling of the Third and Pearl radium-contaminated soil indicative of the quality we should expect for the entire upcoming Valmont Butte cleanup?
Unfortunately, as serious as it may seem, the Third and Pearl radium problem may actually pale in comparison to other, yet undisclosed contamination problems at the butte. Those ghosts will be making their appearance in the near future, as our series continues.
—Blair Madole and Hadley Vandiver contributed to this article.