Cold War-era Grand Junction had a widespread benefit from a uranium mill in its backyard: dirt — fine, sand-like, multipurpose dirt.
The Climax Uranium Mill along the Colorado River offered an endless supply of the gray dirt that was free for the taking by anyone who needed material to use in sidewalks and roadways, in mortar for bricks, in golf-course sand traps, in tree potting soil, and in kids’ sandboxes.
About 2.2 million tons of the material from the Climax mill was spread around the Grand Valley from the late 1940s through the 1960s. That was before the U.S. Department of Energy had an “oops” realization in 1969 that cancer-causing gamma rays and radon gas came along with the fill dirt that was the byproduct of ore crushed and ground to extract uranium for atomic bombs.
The agency set out to clean up the mess by jack hammering downtown sidewalks, bulldozing construction sites and scraping up foundation dirt to remove contamination from an estimated 4,000 locations. The radioactive dirt collected from the early 1970s to the late 1990s was hauled to a containment cell stuck out in the barren desert 18 miles southwest of Grand Junction.
Now, in a quirk of modern politics, the continued cleanup of that misguided 70-year-old Cold War dirt legacy can go forward. It had been threatened because there was no legislation to keep the containment cell open past September. Until President Trump picked up his pen this weekend.
Thanks to a single line that was tucked between “Space Radiation Research” and something called “Sense of Congress” on page 3,719 of the 5,593-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (more commonly known as the COVID relief bill), the disposal site can remain open for another decade.
That means the remaining radioactive dirt around Grand Junction and from other uranium mining and milling locations around the Western Slope — hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of it — can continue to be removed and disposed of cheaply because there will continue to be a specialized radioactive dump for it.
“We are definitely feeling relief,” said Trent Prall, Grand Junction’s public works director.
Grand Junction had been on tenterhooks, along with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, because if the disposal cell was going to have to quit accepting new material, complications and high costs were going to follow.
The DOE Legacy Management disposal site accepts contaminated dirt at no cost. The cell is the last government-owned, noncommercial disposal facility in the country to still accept uranium mill tailings. Without that containment site, contractors, highway project managers, homeowners and a number of former uranium mill towns spread across the Western Slope would have had to haul any radioactive tailings to a commercial dump west of Salt Lake City. The costs would have reached into the millions for larger projects.
That was a particularly problematic prospect for the City of Grand Junction and the highway department because of a large street project scheduled for a downtown intersection in the next year. That project is expected to uncover a large amount of tailings. The cost of disposing of those could have added millions to the overall cost.
“It would have cost us $60,000 per truck and a seven-hour trip each way to take it to the Utah site,” Prall said.
On the lower end, Grand Junction homeowners and homebuyers who want to rid their property of leftover tailings also stand to benefit. They will be able to continue to take buckets and pickup loads of contaminated dirt to an interim facility at the city shops.
The radioactive material is placed in an old sewer clarifier there. It is essentially a heavy-duty concrete tank. The city then trucks the material to the DOE containment site. In recent years, about 1,000 cubic yards of the contaminated material are dug up around Grand Junction each year. That’s about 5,000 bathtubs of dirt.
“We come across it all the time in virtually every water, sewer and street project we do,” Prall said.
Stockpiling radioactive sand
How much remains in Grand Junction is a big question mark. The state health department has records of about 72,000 potentially contaminated sites in and around Grand Junction but estimates that only about 20% of those sites are contaminated enough for removal.
“The numbers are all over the boards,” said Kirk Roemer, a lead staff member with Navarro, a contractor to the DOE Office of Legacy Management that operates the containment cell.
Mike Cosby, an environmental protection specialist with the state health department, said there are a lot of reasons why the magnitude of the tailings leftovers is unknown. Back in 1970, when the state asked the DOE for help cleaning up radioactivity in Grand Junction homes, there was no rush on the part of the then Atomic Energy Commission to set guidelines for cleanups or to identify where the tailings were.
Homeowners and contractors who were big fans of the very fine gray sand also were not eager to get rid of it. Some didn’t believe it posed any danger. Their kids were known to entertain themselves by sliding down the tailings pile on pieces of cardboard. A Miss Atomic Energy was crowned in Grand Junction each year and went home with a pickup load of radioactive ore as a prize.
So, when the DOE announced that it would no longer be available, there was a rush to gather as much of it as possible. Cosby said some people stockpiled it in their backyards.
“It’s amazing, beautiful sand,” Roemer said.
The material was never actually advertised as free dirt, Roemer said. He refers to it as “stolen material.” But there was no attempt to stop the convoy of those who came to haul it away from an unfenced site with a single “Keep Out” sign posted along a road.
The New York Times delved into Grand Junction’s radioactive dirt conundrum in a lengthy 1971 article headlined, “Dear Sir: Your House Is Built On Radioactive Uranium Waste.”
The headline referred to a letter drafted by the state health department as a warning to property owners. That letter said there was no “precise scientific information” about the long-term health effects of low-level radiation, but ended with the admonition: “We strongly recommend, however, that you make every effort to lower the radiation exposure level in your home by removing the uranium tailings from your property.”
At the time, the dangers of uranium ore in mines was just being acknowledged. It was found that the ore veins contained radium that decays into radon gas. That gas morphs into particles called “radon daughters” that can remain suspended in the air and inhaled. The radon daughters release gamma rays that can penetrate concrete and other building materials.
The problem didn’t come to public attention, according to the article, until after 1966, when two doctors from the state health department and the U.S. Public Health Service were doing an inspection in Grand Junction and saw trucks unloading uranium tailings in town. They concluded that such tailings placed beneath a home could create the same health-threatening conditions as those found inside a uranium mine.
The health department calculated that occupants of some of the contaminated homes were exposed to the equivalent of 553 chest X-rays per year.
Their warnings set off a period of state pushes for action, matched by federal foot-dragging, before a $20 million removal project was approved.
Property owners had the right to turn down cleanup measures and, Cosby said, quite a few did. That is part of the reason the scope of the “free” radioactive dirt is still unknown – and why the disposal cell is still needed.
The cell has room for another 223,000 cubic yards of material. A typical home site cleanup contains about 10 cubic yards. Cosby said that means there is plenty of room to accommodate cleanups for the next decade.
Prall said there has been a collective sigh of relief over the continuation of the containment site. He said he knows the one line in the appropriations bill that made that happen was not noticed by many who were hanging on a thread for COVID relief measures.
But it is one small measure of another kind of health-related relief in the Grand Valley.