Paying for toxic smelter?

Families search for clues of uranium contamination in Durango’s past

Crystal Schmit, left, and Kim Nemecek have been searching since January for evidence linking the company their husbands worked for in the 1980s to a project to remove uranium-mining tailings from Smelter Mountain. Both Schmit’s and Nemecek’s husbands later died of cancer. Here they look for old newspaper stories about waste removal from Smelter Mountain at the Durango Public Library. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Crystal Schmit, left, and Kim Nemecek have been searching since January for evidence linking the company their husbands worked for in the 1980s to a project to remove uranium-mining tailings from Smelter Mountain. Both Schmit’s and Nemecek’s husbands later died of cancer. Here they look for old newspaper stories about waste removal from Smelter Mountain at the Durango Public Library.

Two Durango women are poring over microfilm, writing letters and making telephone calls in search of evidence to tie the deaths of their husbands to the disposal of radioactive waste from Smelter Mountain a quarter of a century ago.

Kim Nemecek and Crystal Schmit are looking for medical records, hospital bills, newspaper articles, photos and old acquaintances to substantiate their claims for government compensation for people who became ill from working in the atomic-energy industry.

Congress authorized the reparation in 2000 under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

Mike Nemecek, who hauled uranium mill waste from sites around Durango, died in 2005 at age 49 from mantle cell lymphoma.

Paul Schmit, who operated a trackhoe to load dump trucks with contaminated tailings, died in 2010 at age 63 of liposarcoma.

The passage of time has obliterated leads, Nemecek and Schmit say. Company names change, people drop out of sight, records are purged and memories fade. Little wonder because the cleanup of uranium-mill tailings and contaminated earth around Durango began in 1985.

Smelting in Durango began 100 years earlier, in the 1880s, with the construction of a mill that processed lead, gold, silver and copper from the San Juan Mountains.

The smelter and mountains of slag occupied a strip of land bounded north and south by today’s County Road 210 and Lightner Creek and east and west by the Animas River and a steep ridge that tops out 1,200 feet above the city. The peak came to be called Smelter Mountain.

The smelter, which closed in 1930, was replaced in 1942 with a United States Vanadium Corp. mill that refined uranium ore for all but two years until 1963.

The uranium was destined for the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb. The end of World War II halted production from 1945 to 1947, but the Cold War brought renewed activity.

When milling ceased for good in 1963, the site lay unattended. But wind would pick up dust and swirl it through the city. The material also was incorporated in roadbed construction and repair and in the building industry.

“They used the material as fill dirt and in building foundations,” said Stan Horn, owner of United Construction, a subcontractor in the removal of mill tailings. “We may have left more of it than we took.”

Duane Smith, a history professor at Fort Lewis College and columnist for The Durango Herald who came to Durango in 1964, remembers radioactive waste as part of the landscape.

Tailings were used for fill on a stretch of Camino del Rio from Ninth to 14th streets and at Florida Mesa Elementary School, he said.

Young skiers learned that dunes of fine tailing particles were the next best thing to snow to hone their skills in the summer, Smith said.

“They loved it,” Smith said. “But it lasted only until the Atomic Energy Commission issued a cease-and-desist order.”

In 1978, Congress approved the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act to clean up inactive uranium-processing sites. The act covers a couple dozen sites, 17 in Colorado.

In 1985, the Department of Energy approved remediation at 137 commercial and residential sites around Durango and ordered waste be buried in Bodo Canyon three miles west of the city.

A three-photo spread on the front page of The Durango Herald on April 21, 1987, records the dynamiting of the mill smokestack to make way for cleanup.

The exposure of mop-up crews to radioactive substances was not ignored. Employees were to wear protective clothing, give regular urine samples for testing and wear radiation-sensitive badges that were sent every four months to a laboratory in Albuquerque for analysis.

In spite of the safeguards, her husband came into contact every day with radioactivity, Nemecek said. It was dusty, dirty work, she said.

“He had to ‘tarp’ his loads and remove the cover by hand as well as plug openings where waste could spill,” Nemecek said. “At the end of each trip, he had to wash the truck bed and wheels before returning for another load.”

Once when he cut his knee on the job, they joked ghoulishly that he would soon glow in the dark, Nemecek said.

Schmit said her husband often worked in jeans and a T-shirt in an open trackhoe cab.

Physicians discovered his liposarcoma – abdominal tumors – while treating him for an intestinal inflammation, Schmit said.

“The first of six tumors weighed five pounds,” Schmit said. “The last one pinched off a nerve in his left leg, and he couldn’t walk.”

The cancer was fast-moving, Schmit said.

Schmit and Nemecek began to look for records of their husbands’ employment and medical histories in January.

The legislation authorizing reparation has two parts, said Mary Brandenberger of the Department of Labor in Washington. Part B applies to employees or their survivors, Part E applies to contractors and subcontractors.

The payment of medical expenses and general damages requires a diagnosis of cancer, beryllium disease or silicosis caused by exposure to radioactivity while working for the Department of Energy.

“A case file must contain evidence of employment, a diagnosed medical condition, proof of eligible survivorship and causation,” Brandenberger said. “Causation means a demonstrated relationship between employment, exposure and a diagnosed condition.”

There’s no deadline for applying for compensation, Brandenberger said. Eligible workers or their survivors may receive a lump sum of $150,000 and medical expenses.

Compensation extends to spouses, children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents, in that order.

As of early March this year, almost 228,000 people had filed claims either as a family member or as a contractor or subcontractor, Brandenberger said.

It would appear to be a no-brainer that the incidence of cancer around Durango would be high. But statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment don’t entirely support anecdotal accounts.

Overall, La Plata County cancer rates are similar to, or slightly lower, than the state as a whole.

Three cancers, statistically, show significant variation. Colorectal cancer is lower than the state rate. But melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, and prostate cancer are higher than the state rate.

The American Cancer Society doesn’t generate statistics at the county level.

daler@durangoherald.com

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald 
Crystal Schmit, left, and Kim Nemecek hope to enlist the help of others who may have lost loved ones because of their involvement with the Smelter Mountain cleanup. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald Crystal Schmit, left, and Kim Nemecek hope to enlist the help of others who may have lost loved ones because of their involvement with the Smelter Mountain cleanup.

Front-end loaders shovel radioactive mill tailings in this April 1989 photo. The on-the-ground phase of the Smelter Mountain remediation project started in November 1986. Enlarge photo

Durango Herald file photo

Front-end loaders shovel radioactive mill tailings in this April 1989 photo. The on-the-ground phase of the Smelter Mountain remediation project started in November 1986.

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