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Thursday, April 26,2012

Valmont residents confirm spread of contamination

By Joel Dyer, Jefferson Dodge and Elizabeth Miller

Ann Miller and her husband Douglas used to live on Valmont Road — directly across the street from the primary tailings pond dike dam at Valmont Butte that is suspected of being a pathway for the contamination that ended up in the wells north of Valmont Road over the years.

Despite claims by various government officials that contamination has never spread from Valmont Butte to adjacent properties, Ann Miller and other nearby residents have a different story.

But her problems over the 33 years that she lived in the shadow of Valmont Butte were not limited to her contaminated well water. In the 1960s, she reports that a white dust from the uncapped tailings pond would descend on her front yard.

“If the wind blew just right, it would just come down like a fog,” Miller says. “We kept complaining about it to the county. … It was just a really, really fine white powder. And it just got over everything.”

She and her husband would simply deal with the problem by turning on their extensive sprinkler system fed by a nearby ditch, and they’d spray the dust away.

Miller still wonders if that dust had something to do with the fact that their dog, a Weimaraner, got a brain tumor and died.

“Well, there’s, I think, a strong possibility, but there wouldn’t be any way that I could prove that, I don’t think,” she says.

Then there was the water from her family’s drinking well. In the summer, Miller recalls, she and her husband would take samples of their drinking water and have it tested by the county health department.

“It was considered unfit to drink,” Miller says. “It had an awful lot of minerals in it. We took a sample of it up to [Colorado State University], and had it tested up there. … They broke it down as to what was in it. It was minerals a foot long. I took it to my doctor and had him look at it, and he said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t ever have to take any laxatives.’ It had a lot of manganese.”

Miller says other chemicals that their water tested positive for included arsenic and lead. And there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, according to the EPA.

But the Millers kept drinking the water, she says, because her husband would treat the contamination — with good old Clorox.

“He’d pour a gallon of it down in the well, and then we’d turn all the taps on in the house, so we could smell the Clorox, so we knew it was in all the pipes, that it had come all the way through.”

Once the Clorox was in all the pipes, they would turn off the faucets and bring in bottled water for a couple of days, Miller says.

“After it had sat in the pipes for awhile, then we just flushed the pipes, just ran the water through them, and through them, and through them, to get the Clorox out of it,” she explains. “That worked, as far as making our water good enough to drink.”

In response to a question about whether there had been any negative health effects from the Valmont property, she acknowledges that her husband died in 1990 due to an auto-immune disease.

“I don’t think so, you know, it’s hard to tell,” Miller says. “My husband had emphysema, but I would have no way of knowing that it came from there. And he also had trouble with platelets, he had an immune system problem that destroyed his platelets. … I suppose it could have been caused by that, but there’d be no way of ever proving that.”

She sold the property in 1994 and now lives in Louisville.

Regardless of whether the Miller family’s health problems were caused by contamination from Valmont Butte, they are not alone in their complaints.

A Feb. 5, 2007, affadavit signed by the Millers’ neighbors, Joy Sawhill Keeter and George E. Sawhill, states that the family’s grandparents moved to 6379 Valmont Road in 1901, and that in about 1945, “the domestic water well located ten feet from the kitchen of the house, which was built in the 1890s, was contaminated.

“Our parents, George and Ruth Sawhill, had the water tested and it came back positive for contamination. General Chemical [which became Allied and then Honeywell] was contacted, they took responsibility and agreed to dig a new well approximately 200 feet from the house. The reason for the contamination was water leaching (not leaking or flooding) from the tailings pond of the General Chemical Mill to our house well.

“The dike directly south of 6379 Valmont Road, that spans the gap between the Butte formations, is comprised entirely of tailings being deposited during process of milling ore. … Our concern is the integrity of the dike and the possibility of further contamination of our ground water.”

And in an Aug. 23, 1985, letter to the Mined Land Reclamation Board, two operators of a Valmont group home objected to plans by the Varra Construction Company to remove dirt from Valmont Butte for a roadbed.

“We are concerned that breaking further into the dike will release more radioactive tailings and further contaminate our water supply,” wrote Guru Nam Kaur Khalsa and Sadhana Singh Khalsa of Khalsa Residential Care. “Our water contains too much alpha radiation to be safe for drinking, so we must buy or haul our drinking water for 15 people.”

Guru Nam Kaur Khalsa told the Longmont Times-Call in a Sept. 19, 1985, article, “We don’t drink the water here at all. The radioactivity is probably due to those tailings.”

According to that story, county sanitarian Eric Steinhaus confirmed the presence of low-level radioactivity in the Khalsa wells, but said its source was unknown.

Sound familiar? An Oct. 22, 1985, article in the Times-Call quotes Boulder County environmental health officer George Mathews as saying that radiation levels in wells north of the butte along Valmont Road are “more than you would expect, but not astronomical.”

According to the same story, records at the county health department showed that the Miller well and another well at 6379 Valmont Road “were positive in tests for radium, uranium and alpha and beta radioactivity in April.”

Finally, a Dec. 10, 2004, letter that was reviewed by a geologist and written by several concerned residents —

including members of Rural Historic Valmont, a member of the Valmont cemetery association, a local organic farmer and a Native American who served as caretaker at Valmont Butte — identifies at least 17 incidents of cancer in the immediate area north of the dike dam. The veracity of their claims has not been confirmed, but historical records support the assertion that contamination has spread from the Valmont property.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, county and state health departments monitored the wells north of Valmont Butte in conjunction with testing the contamination at the primary tailings pond pump and other areas located on the Allied Chemical property. They reported their findings on the water wells north of the primary tailings pond and the Allied locations in a single document presented to the company each year.

These water-testing documents make it clear that in the past, the same government entities that now state emphatically there is no chance a pathway from the primary tailings pond to the aquifer north of the dike dam can exist, were once quite sure that such a pathway did exist.

And yet these officials continue to insist that it couldn’t happen again in the future.

The spread of that misinformation may prove to be as toxic as the contamination itself.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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