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City won’t study uranium health risks before opening homeless camp

State recommends complete assessment
This map shows the area formerly used as a uranium mill. The area governed by an environmental covenant between the city of Durango and the state health department includes an area to the west along Lightner Creek, where homeless residents may be required to camp.

A planned homeless camp expected to open near the Durango Dog Park may pose health risks to residents, but the city does not plan to assess potential hazards before allowing people to sleep on the former uranium mill site.

The state health department recently sent a letter to the city to recommend officials complete a health-risk assessment because radioactive materials were left on the site and the risk to those staying overnight on the land is unknown.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment restricts the use of the property through an environmental covenant because hazardous materials remain on the site.

City officials do not believe setting up the camp violates the covenant, and the city is not seeking approval from the state to set up the camp, the letter states.

“The city undertakes this effort at its own risk,” the health department’s letter states.

The city does not believe a health-risk assessment is necessary, because the city would not have accepted ownership of the property that was in a contaminated and unsafe condition, Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said in an email.

The recent letter informs the city that no other former uranium mill tailings sites in Colorado have been approved for residential or overnight uses.

“Sheltering individuals overnight on the former mill site goes beyond the anticipated recreational use,” the letter states.

In April, city councilors voted to establish the new camp adjacent to Lightner Creek to mitigate the threat of fire posed by homeless campers.

The new camp near Lightner Creek is expected to open before June 30, after a site manager is hired, Hall said. Once it opens, campers would not be allowed to stay anywhere else.

The area that could function as a camp for homeless residents overnight is directly adjacent to former uranium tailings piles. The whole area is governed by an environmental covenant between the city of Durango and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The city plans to fence the property and provide a dumpster and portable toilets in the parking lot across Lightner Creek. The city also plans to provide lockable, sanitized trash containers for campers’ belongings. The new camp will be open from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., and campers would be required to pack up their tents each morning.

Homeless residents could be required to move to the new location from a temporary camping area set up on a 1-acre site near the base of Hogsback Mountain. The current camp is free of vegetation, and fires are banned in the camp.

While the state recommended the city complete a health-risk assessment, it does not plan to do an assessment on the city’s behalf, the letter states.

The letter from the health department informs the city that erosion may have transported contaminated materials onto the proposed camp area.

The city counters that the health department has not provided any information to verify the claim that erosion has carried contaminants to the site, Hall said.

“CDPHE has not provided any new or additional information to inform or compel a different decision on location,” he said.

The state has not determined if the city’s plan to require homeless residents to sleep on the property is a violation of the environmental covenant governing the property, said Monica Sheets, remediation program manager for the state’s Hazardous Materials & Waste Management Division, in an email to the Herald.

The state plans to conduct inspections of the site to make sure the city is in compliance with the covenant, which prohibits construction of a habitable structure on the site without radon mitigation. It also prohibits tilling, grading, excavation and any activity that disturbs the soil.

If the city violates the covenant, it could face court action to enforce compliance, Sheets said in an email.

The letter does not prohibit the city from opening the camp, but it is a strong warning, said Travis Stills, an attorney with Energy & Conservation Law in Durango.

“They are about only a couple of inches away from saying you absolutely cannot do this,” Stills said.

He opposes opening the camp because it combines two problems: environmental contamination and a vulnerable population.

“This generation of Durangoans needs to stand up and say what’s right,” he said.

The city could also be subject to a lawsuit if a camp resident acquired a health condition as a result of staying in the camp, he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Health department letter
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Health department letter (PDF)

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