Ghosts of Valmont Butte

A 10-part series on a contaminated property bought by the city of Boulder | by Joel Dyer, Jefferson Dodge and Elizabeth Miller, January to June 2012

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

When the city of Boulder issued a press release in December 2011 announcing that it, along with Honeywell International and Tusco Inc., had reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA regarding the cost of investigating and cleaning up Valmont Butte, the gaps in information set Boulder Weekly staff off looking for more details.

The city purchased the site in 2000, planning to turn it into a training center for firefighters and a biosolids recycling center, but an EPA investigation of the site in 2004 and 2005 determined that cleanup costs for the site were prohibitive. The city elected, instead, to clean the site — the costs of which would be shared with one-time owner of the site Honeywell International — and leave it as open space.

In a 10-part series (totaling more than 37,000 words) that spanned six months, Boulder Weekly reported on the historical, cultural and scenic significance of a local landmark that has been reduced to a permanent site for the storage of toxic and radioactive waste. BW dug into records from the city of Boulder, Boulder County, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The team examined dozens of historic photographs and maps, and interviewed people whose families lived in the area and whose relatives were buried in a cemetery adjacent to the site. The Weekly unearthed an ongoing threat to public health posed by the contamination and potential mismanagement on the part of the city in terms of the property’s acquisition and proposed cleanup.

The cleanup plan focused mainly on preventing burrowing animals like prairie dogs from bringing toxic waste to the surface, and included virtually no provisions for preventing groundwater contamination and migration. City officials insisted that the 102-acre site does not have any groundwater, despite reports from neighboring homes of well contamination that dated back half a century. In meetings with city staff, Boulder Weekly reporters also discovered that those staff members responsible for determining the plan for cleanup at the site did not seem certain of the location of up to 150 truckloads of radium-contaminated soil that the city itself dumped there in 1971. It appeared that officials increased the size of the dirt cap planned at the site to include the location BW identified as the likely spot for where that radioactive waste was buried.

Among the stories in the series BW published was “Valmont Butte’s got a dam problem, among others,” (March 1), which addressed four assertions that had shaped the way the EPA, the CDPHE and the city of Boulder viewed, classified and handled Valmont Butte, and aired problematic issues with each of those assertions. Those issues included viewing the butte and its contaminants as separate and distinct from a neighboring site owned by Xcel, even though the two sites historically had swapped contamination on many occasions, and may well have gained Superfund status if they had been treated as one site. Only a note found among boxes of EPA records declared what seemed to make sense: That a chain link fence, such as the one that separates the former Allied Chemical mill site at Valmont Butte and the neighboring Public Service property, does not create a barrier that prevents the spread of contamination, and that the two sites should be assessed as related. But viewing the two sites as separate meant Valmont Butte missed qualifying for the National Priorities List support for a cleanup through Superfund by less than one point. That same scoring, completed under the watch of the Reagan administration, also hinges on the questionable assumption that there is no groundwater on the site.

Additional assertions that BW challenged were that the Valmont dike forms an impenetrable barrier that would prevent the waste buried on the site from migrating off site to the north through a man-made dam; and that there is no groundwater on the site that could carry contaminants from the primary tailings pond — although there’s a wetland on the east end of the property and a presence of plants indicating groundwater 15 to 20 feet below the surface just north of the dam. The CDPHE maintains that, although contamination may have occurred in the past, when the mill was in operation, there are no off-site impacts today.

Local organizations and activists — including members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, the Native American Rights Fund, the Valmont School District No. 4 Cemetery Association and the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance — looked to the BW series as justification for approaching city council to ask for public hearings, open records, updates on the ongoing cleanup (including a site tour) and test wells to determine whether groundwater is migrating offsite, carrying with it contaminants like arsenic, lead, selenium, radium and uranium. For the most part, city officials turned down those requests.

Likely because of the Valmont investigation, city of Boulder officials have become less cooperative with BW’s reporters, and refused to allow them access to key city officials, the tribal monitor and city archaeologist who were keeping tabs on the cleanup, even while BW was reporting on allegations that the city’s earthmoving work on the site could have disturbed cultural artifacts and, potentially, human remains. City staff also provided a tour of the site to employees of the Daily Camera while refusing to extend the same courtesy to the Weekly.

The city’s cleanup of the site is still ongoing, over budget and behind schedule, and BW will once again resume reporting on the issue when that cleanup is finished and the files documenting the work can be examined properly.