The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” — Rita Mae Brown, Sudden Death, 1983 Sometimes, history repeats itself.
Especially in the case of Valmont Butte and its ghosts.
So it should come as no surprise that city officials seem tempted to repeat the same mistakes they have made in the past when it comes to the butte, the same mistakes that have wrongly cost Boulder taxpayers millions of dollars so far.
Considering what has transpired over the past 40 years since the city’s first involvement at the site, it seems fair to question whether the city has been either naïve in its handling of the Valmont Butte situation or has intentionally charged forward in some kind of misguided attempt to control its own destiny when it comes to cleaning up the old Allied mill site. Either way, the entire process has been one of the biggest blunders in city history when it comes to protecting the health and well-being of the citizenry as well as being fiscally responsible with the taxpayers’ money.
The city and county’s failure to protect the health of local citizens from Valmont Butte contamination has a long and well-documented history. Officials from the Boulder City/County Health Department, as it was called in the past, failed to stop Allied Chemical from dumping as much as 200,000 gallons per day of radioactive, lead- and arsenic-tainted water directly into the Public Service Co. lakes for some 30 years, from the early 1940s until the 1970s. They didn’t even stop the dumping once it was discovered. From the lakes, this contamination was further released into the watershed, primarily Boulder Creek. And even though it is now known that this large (as much as 2 billion gallons) and potentially dangerous release did, in fact, occur, no government agency has ever made an effort to determine what downstream populations were exposed to the lead and other toxins.
The only possible exception is a single letter from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the director of the Green Ditch in 1982, which appears to inquire about what farms might be using the water downstream from Valmont Butte for irrigation. A response was either not obtained from the ditch company or the information has since gone missing from the EPA’s files.
The only actual efforts ever made to try to identify cancer clusters or other problems potentially caused by this unprecedented, at least locally, level of toxic dumping have been nonscientific efforts by concerned citizens. And even these were very limited in scope, covering perhaps one square mile north of the Allied mill.
Such information is not easy to come by. Boulder Weekly has been trying to determine the historic municipal drinking water intakes from along Boulder Creek during the time span of this contamination release for more than a month, only to be stonewalled at every turn by various government bureaucrats who apparently have no desire to find out whether their water may have been contaminated in the past.
As has been the case throughout the Valmont Butte saga, the fear of financial liability seems to be by far the most powerful force driving the decisions of those responsible for keeping us safe and cleaning up the butte.
The City/County Health Department has known about the contamination in the wells along Valmont Road just north of the site and immediately below the dike dam since the 1960s. For years, the public record shows that health officials believed that the contamination was likely coming from the Allied mill site. And just this month, Warren Smith of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said he believes that during the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, the contamination was leaving the property and contaminating wells to the north. But he says he now believes that this is no longer the case. But the question remains, if it was so obvious at the time, why did no one try to stop the contamination from getting into the wells, or at least stop the people from drinking the water? It seems that only after determining that the threat of human exposure to contamination has ceased to exist are they willing to acknowledge that it existed in the past. So what should we believe today when they tell us that no such pathways currently exist from the old Allied mill site, while still refusing to properly test the Public Service lakes or drill the monitoring wells below the dike dam that would allow them to know if contamination is leaving the site now?
The other pattern that continues to emerge is the city’s repeated assumption that everything regarding the site’s contamination is now known and, therefore, it’s safe to push ahead with millions of dollars in expenditures. It’s the pattern that emerged when the city bought the property, and it’s the same pattern being applied to building a cap over the primary tailings pond. But the city’s belief that all of the problems with the property are now known is simply wishful thinking. Even the EPA admits that it has never done a full, comprehensive investigation at the site.
Three times in the past 30 years the EPA has investigated the site to one degree or another and declared that it’s in need of “no further action,” only to return years or decades later to discover additional contamination and remediation needs. Concerned citizens are now asking the agency to return yet again.
The lesson of Valmont Butte is that when something has taken 70 years to contaminate, it might just take that long to figure out where it is and clean it up.
So why is it that the city is again charging forward to build its $5 million cap, even though questions regarding groundwater in the tailings pond and whether it has the possibility to leach through the dam and migrate off the property remain? They remain primarily because no one is willing to spend $9,000 to drill a monitoring well below the dam to find out if this migration is, in fact, occurring.
Consider what the CDPHE told Tom Hendricks, a former mill operator at the Allied mill site, when he proposed capping the primary tailings pond in 1984. It told him that he shouldn’t do it as long as there were questions about groundwater in and around the pond. The state went on to tell him that if groundwater were later found at the site, he would have to remove his cap along with the tailings, which would mean that the whole process would have been a waste of time and money.
It’s the same thing today. The city is acting as if it is impossible that new information regarding groundwater in and around the tailings pond could come to light — this despite the fact that such new discoveries have been commonplace at the butte.
It seems that every time the city is sure that nothing else can change at Valmont Butte, it costs taxpayers another two or three million dollars for this or that. It’s added up to quite a price tag for a piece of property that isn’t useable for anything at this point except for remembering its cultural heritage.
So are we headed that way yet again? Are we jumping too fast into a multi-million dollar expenditure that we may regret later when we have more information? If the March 7 Boulder City Council meeting is any indication, the answer could be yes.
But at least one city council member is questioning the approach this time around, despite staff ’s attempt to push ahead no matter what new evidence arises.
* * * *
During the public comment period at that meeting, Native American Rights Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Steven Moore asked the council to postpone the remediation of the city’s Valmont Butte property in light of the findings thus far in Boulder Weekly’s series. (He spoke on behalf of two other groups, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance.)
In particular, Moore highlighted two key questions that have been raised in the BW series — the disputed location of radioactive material from Third and Pearl streets dumped by the city at Valmont Butte in 1971, and the possible migration of contaminated groundwater under the dike dam.
The latter claim, he noted, “focuses on the oft-made claim that there is no way by which contaminants at the Valmont Butte site can migrate to contaminate water sources to the north of the city’s property. The Weekly’s investigation has shown this assertion to be patently false, because it is based on a collection of assertions, each in turn at least partially unproven or completely false due to the fact that the sampling required for verification was never performed by either the EPA or the CDPHE.”
Moore said the new information “demonstrates the old truism that you don’t find what you don’t look for.”
Given those two points, Moore said, “it is clear that the city should immediately put on hold the $5 million cleanup it expects to soon begin at Valmont Butte. Before proceeding with the cleanup, the city needs, first, to determine precisely where the radioactive debris from Third and Pearl was dumped at Valmont Butte. Second, the city must ensure that the never-done sampling related to groundwater at the site is finally done. Both these steps entail sampling not previously performed; the required sampling must be done in a way that is transparent and technically sound. We believe it should be independently verified.”
Finally, Moore said, the results of such tests may require the agreement between the city and Honeywell to be renegotiated, “to design and to accomplish a cleanup that is more appropriate to actual conditions at Valmont Butte. We ask that you convene open, public meetings with your staff and consultants to get to the bottom of the serious issues raised in the Weekly’s series prior to authorizing the commencement of the cleanup.”
After the public comment period, City Council member Lisa Morzel asked the city attorney and city manager about the comments made at the meeting by Moore and another longtime Valmont activist, Carol Affleck of the Valmont School District #4 Cemetery Association.
“Several people spoke about Valmont Butte, and the idea of postponing the VCUP [the city’s Voluntary Clean-Up Program],” Morzel said. “If we wanted to do that, what would be the process?” City Attorney Tom Carr replied, “I don’t know, the VCUP has been ordered by a federal court as part of a judgment. It’s an agreement we’ve been working on for years. I’d have to look at that and figure out how we re-open that to delay it.”
Morzel, a geologist and longtime council member, responded, “In this series of articles, it does bring up a lot of concerns that we haven’t adequately identified where the real problem is.”
“We’ve spent millions working on finding what the real problem was,” Carr countered. “I know the articles said some things, but I’m not sure what you’d do other than hire really qualified consultants and scientists to do the work, and I believe that has been done.”
But Morzel remained undeterred. “I recognize that, but it does concern me that, at least in these reports, it states there hasn’t been adequate groundwater sampling at the locations that people think should be sampled, so there’s just some issues that have come up, and sometime I think we should sit down and have a discussion.”
Carr agreed to the request, reluctantly.
* * * *
As they push ahead with their plans, city officials say they are confident the proposed cleanup at Valmont Butte is sufficient, despite evidence to the contrary. They maintain that even though the EPA found that groundwater is pooling and doming in the primary tailings pond where the contaminated materials are currently located — and where additional contamination will be buried — there is no evidence that any groundwater has left the site. Even the state and EPA are careful not to make such a claim, noting that they don’t believe groundwater is “currently” leaving the property. Both acknowledge it may well have migrated off site in the past. If it was possible for the groundwater to escape to the north in the past, it is wrong to summarily dismiss the possibility that the same contamination pathway could exist now or in the future. And part of those conditions will depend on the type of cap the city constructs over the tailings pond.
The EPA has suggested that the cap over the tailings pond should meet the same requirements as a uranium tailings cap, which must be both water-resistant and designed to last several hundred years without eroding and exposing the tailings below. The city cap does not fit this description.
Others, like the School of Mines’ Ron Cohen, an expert in remediation, agree that a waterproof cap is preferable to simply putting dirt and rock over the tailings because it would prevent infiltration of rain and surface water, which, once mixed with the contamination, have the ability to migrate.
Cohen, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering, says that ideally, remediation like the one at Valmont should involve lining the tailings pond. “Back in the day, they did not line tailings ponds, and that’s not good,” he says.
According to Cohen, however, such systems cost “big bucks,” significantly more than the $5 million set aside for the Valmont cleanup.
Cohen noted that it is common practice for purchasers of known contaminated properties to conduct extensive environmental assessments before buying such land, as opposed to aftersee wards, as seems to have been the case in the city’s approach to Valmont Butte. The city finished its environmental assessment on Sept. 18, more than a month after City Council had voted to approve the purchase of the property, and nearly two weeks after the city had closed and paid for the property. Cohen notes that “even banks would not repossess an industrial property unless an environmental audit had been done.”
* * * *
The spread of contamination from Valmont Butte, like the ultimate remediation price tag, remains a mystery.
Nevertheless, the city of Boulder’s primary concern seems to be moving ahead with its cap plan, which is primarily designed to keep prairie dogs from digging into the tailings pond. (This despite the fact that not a single prairie dog has ever turned up in a water well across the street from the tailings pond.)
The city’s cap plan is to throw down two feet of clean fill dirt, topped by an 18-inch layer of various-sized rocks. Joe Castro, the city’s director of facilities and fleet management, says earthen culverts will be installed to direct storm water drainage to the east.
According to Castro, Boulder’s remediation costs will be divided proportionately in this manner: 50 percent paid by the general fund, 40 percent by utilities and 10 percent by open space.
When asked where the money will be coming from, Castro says no cuts were needed.
“We’ve been saving,” he explains.
Bill Boyes, the city’s facilities maintenance program manager, told Boulder Weekly that prairie dogs in the area have already been exterminated. The rodents within the perimeter of the main tailings pond, where the contaminated material will be dumped, have been euthanized with gas, or fumitoxin. Options to relocate the animals or donate them to a raptor program were ruled out due to a lack of volunteers, and, later, a state Division of Wildlife ruling that they were too contaminated to be removed.
When asked why the city would risk stirring up airborne contamination by digging up the lower tailings pond — and dumping it into the main tailings pond instead of simply capping both tailings ponds — Castro says it is a question of money. Due to the high cost of applying dirt and rock, he says, it is actually more cost-effective to move the material rather than apply two caps. But he offers reassurances that water trucks will be on hand to sprinkle the dirt and keep it from leaving the site as dust.
* * * *
The city decided to split the cost of the $5 million cleanup with Honeywell instead of trying to force the giant company that bought Allied Chemical to pay for the entire project. David Gehr, deputy city attorney, told Boulder Weekly that the city has not yet determined final liability for the cleanup and has instead decided, for now, to split the costs 50-50 with Honeywell (along with a $250,000 portion covered by one of the site’s former owners, Tusco), reserving the option of pursuing the matter “in an abbreviated, mini-trial process” after the remediation is complete. Honeywell is responsible for covering all of the EPA’s site inspection costs, which came to more than $500,000.
When asked whether the adjacent property and lakes, which are owned by Xcel and have been implicated in the Allied site’s sordid history, have been complicit in any contamination on the city’s property, Gehr said Xcel was not brought into the legal action surrounding the parcel. But he acknowledged that the company’s adjacent fly-ash dumping site could be a cause of future groundwater contamination on the city’s property.
“I’ve heard people say that,” he said. But Gehr maintained that “there’s not a groundwater issue,” in part because it can’t be determined who the contaminator is.
“There’s a lot of industrial activity in that part of town,” he said.
In that sense, Xcel’s fly ash may be a very convenient and welcome thing for the city, if not the environment, going forward. Once again, it seems that the city’s main concern is potential liability, not making the site clean and safe.
When asked about the contaminants found in the wells of the Keeter family and others north of the site, Gehr says no correlation has been demonstrated between those results and the Valmont property.
Not exactly a comforting thought, when you consider that the city, like the other agencies charged with protecting us, continues to refuse to drill the one monitoring well that could establish that correlation.
Maybe after they spend a few more million of our dollars on the cap, then they’ll drill that $9,000 well. And then we’ll see how they explain having to remove the cap or replace it with a water-resistant one … for a few million more of our dollars.
Detecting a pattern yet?