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Southwest Life Health And the West is History Community Travel

And the West is History: Removing Smelter Mountain Tailings – 1988

In 1959, researchers discovered that the drinking water in Farmington had radioactivity levels 10 times higher than that of Durango. Durango obtained its water from the Florida River and Farmington from the Animas. The cause of the radioactivity was immediately identified as the Vanadium Corporation of America’s uranium mill on the banks of the Animas at Smelter Mountain. Starting in the early 1960s and led by Durango Chamber of Commerce president and local physician, Chester Wigton, the community worked toward getting the tailings pile either encapsulated or removed. The cost was exorbitant, however, and not until the Department of Energy agreed to provide 90% of the cost in the mid-1980s was the pile finally removed. Starting in August 1987 and completed in November 1990, the $30 million project saw 2.5 million cubic yards of low-level radioactive tailings moved about 3 miles to a 38-acre disposal site in Bodo Canyon. Ed Horvat for Animas Museum, edhorvat@animasmuseum.org (Catalog Number: 04.05.356 from the La Plata County Historical Society Photo Collections)