Valmont Butte cleanup delayed, $1.4 million over budget

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

The miscalculations at Valmont Butte continue, apparently.

City of Boulder officials have announced that the $5 million cleanup of the contaminated 103-acre property the city bought 12 years ago is over budget by more than $1.4 million and will be completed three months late.

According to a staff memo requesting a supplemental budget appropriation that Boulder City Council will be asked to approve tonight, Nov. 15, the project has encountered some unanticipated costs and time delays.

The cleanup, which was to be completed in December, is now projected to be finished in March and will come in 28 percent over budget.

The city has been splitting the cost of the remediation project with Honeywell, which acquired a company partially responsible for years of contamination at the site. The city will bear half of the additional cost, $722,000, with Honeywell paying the remainder.

Of the city’s amount, $361,000 will come from the general fund, $288,000 will be drawn from the Wastewater Utility Fund, and $72,000 will be provided by the Open Space and Mountain Parks Fund.

The reasons for the cost overrun and delay seem varied. According to the memo, the added expenses are for “asbestos abatement, prairie dog fencing, removal of invasive trees, additional soil excavation, rock cap adjustments and contingencies.”

But the bulk of the overrun is not being driven by those “construction costs,” the memo says. A total of $1.2 million is needed for “archaeological monitoring, prairie dog management, perimeter air monitoring, building asbestos inspection, legal services, and independent oversight, sampling and reporting.”

On top of the $1.4 million in additional cleanup costs, the city attorney’s office is requesting another $150,000 for the project.

The budget increase request is part of the council’s “consent agenda,” which is the collection of items approved as a package because they are perceived to be of little consequence, requiring only a quick rubber stamp. (The purchase of the property in 2000 was approved the same way.)

It is unclear whether any of the additional work required is a result of Boulder Weekly’s 10-part series earlier this year about the history of contamination at the site and associated debacles, including the city’s purchase of the parcel.

When asked how Honeywell officials felt about the cost overrun and delay, company spokesperson Victoria Streitfeld referred BW to city of Boulder officials.

City spokesperson Jody Jacobson says the cost increase represents the culmination of many factors.

“There was not one big additional cost, it was a lot of multiple unanticipated costs, which is not unusual to have with a construction or mitigation project,” she told BW. “You have a lot of unknowns that end up getting addressed in the field. It really wasn’t a change in scope, or anything like that.”

Jacobson says examples of those unknowns include the amount of asbestos in old mill buildings that needed abatement, which cost an additional $77,000.

“We weren’t sure there was going to have to be abatement until we got in there,” she explains, adding that there was more archeological work than expected as well. “We didn’t know what we would find until we found it. I know they found some things, and whether it was real archeological artifacts or not, we still had to do the monitoring and documenting of everything found. There were some things found, and those have been documented.”

Those items include a circle of rocks with a cross-shaped rock formation in the center that city workers found in April and removed, a decision that was met with protest by local activists, including representatives from the adjacent Valmont Cemetery, who feared it was a grave. City officials insisted that the archeologist and tribal monitor hired for the project ascertained that it wasn’t a grave. City Attorney Tom Carr even suggested that the marker was a hoax and balked at the idea of making photos of the marker public.

When asked what was done with any other possible artifacts found, Jacobson says she hadn’t read the project’s archeological report yet. She attributed the need for $150,000 in additional legal fees to the cost of hiring an outside attorney.

“With a construction project, especially a mitigation project, you often don’t know until you’re in the field what exactly you’re going to need,” Jacobson says.

After consulting with Bill Boyes, the city’s facilities maintenance program manager who is heading up the Valmont remediation, she provided further information via email.

An additional $900,000 will be needed for the rock cap designed to keep prairie dogs from burrowing into contaminated soil. Jacobson wrote that the cost increase was not due to an extension of the cap footprint, but the increased volume of rock needed to make the cap thicker — after a “test cap” showed that the original thickness would not have effectively deterred the rodents.

There were no areas of contamination found that were previously unknown, she says. As for conflicting accounts about the location of radium buried by the city at the butte in 1971 — and questions raised by BW about whether the proposed cap would cover that radium — Jacobson wrote, “The location of the radium material was known prior to remediation and is included within the area of the cap.”

In response to a request for comment, Valmont activist LeRoy Moore, a founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, said via email, “Again, as before, we can rely on the Boulder Weekly, not officials of the City of Boulder, to inform us of shenanigans regarding Valmont Butte. This time we learn about an unexpected 28 percent increase in the city’s share of the cost for the cleanup of the contaminated Valmont Butte site. On a matter for which we’ve had no voice, we the taxpayers are expected to pick up the tab. The comedy of errors continues.”

When asked to comment on the discovery of the archeological items, Lori Windle of the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance said via email, “I believe this is news to the Native community in the Denver metro area, so until we have more information from the City of Boulder we are uncertain how to react. We have been concerned all along that the City was not paying sufficient attention to protecting potentially culturally sensitive areas, especially on the east side of the Butte property. But until we have more information we are not certain whether our concerns have been realized.”