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Former uranium mill tailings may pose health risks at homeless camp

City and state officials disagree on requirements to open site
Durango City Councilors voted this week to set up a camp for homeless residents adjacent to a site where a uranium mill operated from 1942 to 1963. The area was cleaned, but radioactive material remains on site. The area is governed by an environmental covenant between the city of Durango and the state health department. While it is not included within the boundary on this map, the covenant includes an area to the west along Lightner Creek, where homeless residents may have to camp.

Durango City Councilors voted to require homeless residents to sleep next to the Durango Dog Park this week, however unanswered questions about the health risks of camping overnight on a former uranium mill site remain.

While the risks have not been formally assessed, some residents question the plan because radioactive material remains on site.

“This is misguided,” said Travis Stills, an attorney with Energy & Conservation Law in Durango.

The city had not submitted its plan for the site to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by Thursday, so officials could not comment on its specifics, said Monica Sheets, remediation program manager with the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division.

“We don’t know if this proposal includes an activity that should be prohibited,” she said.

An area planned to house a camp for homeless residents is directly adjacent to a former uranium mill site. The whole area is governed by an environmental covenant between the city of Durango and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The health department must approve activity on the site because it contains hazardous materials and is governed by a covenant between the city and the state, Sheets said. But the city does not believe the covenant applies to its plan.

The city would be required to complete a health risk assessment before an overnight camp could be set up, Sheets said.

“I am also concerned about the possibility of people sleeping on the site, just because I don’t know what the risks are,” she said.

The city’s leadership does not agree with CDPHE officials about what would be required to open the site to homeless residents.

“It is the opinion of the city attorney that there is no requirement to do a health risk assessment and there is no requirement to obtain a permit for a property that we already own. The sleeping area will not be where the piles of tailings were stored,” City Manager Ron LeBlanc said in an email.

Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said he plans to discuss the city’s plan with state health department officials next week.

The city’s recently approved emergency ordinance would require homeless residents to sleep parallel to Lightner Creek and pack up their belongings every morning. In addition to a fence, the city expects to provide port-a-potties, but not on the land governed by the covenant, LeBlanc said.

The document also requires structures to have radon mitigation and restricts disturbing the soil. But the city doesn’t expect to violate those provisions, LeBlanc said.

City councilors approved the site for homeless residents so that La Plata County could close a camp north of the Durango Tech Center and mitigate fire danger.

Since the vote Tuesday, the city has not received the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office plan to close the camp, LeBlanc said.

Councilors voted 4-1 late Tuesday night to direct city staff to set up the new area because they are worried current camping poses a serious fire risk in an extremely dry year.

“It seems that common sense needs to prevail. The fire risk is critical,” LeBlanc said.

He said the city has stepped into the vacuum created by a lack of action by nonprofits and churches, but the city’s plans would not impede other parallel efforts to address homelessness.

“No solution is perfect, but doing nothing is not acceptable,” he said.

Councilor Melissa Youssef opposed the emergency measure because requiring homeless residents to pack up every day might make them more visible downtown and in city parks. It could also make it tougher for them to find employment and housing.

“I believe this will be a case study in what we should not do,” she said.

It’s also possible that rather than abiding by city rules, the campers would move farther into the woods and camp illegally, she said.

“It’s spreading out the fire risk,” Youssef said.

Before the site could be opened, the city must assess the potential for humans to be exposed to heavy metals and radioactive materials, such as thorium and radon, known to cause cancer, said Wendy Naugle, project manager in the state’s uranium mill tailings program.

Governmental agencies never anticipated anyone would live on the site, Sheets said.

The Department of Energy could also want to review plans for the site, but the agency did not return requests for comment by Friday.

Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of the Community Compassion Outreach Program, objects to making homeless residents sleep on the site because of the risks. The covenant governing the property prohibits disturbing the soil without permission from the state health department. But Baukat is not sure how homeless residents could abide by that rule.

“If you’re not supposed to disturb the soil, how in the world can people stake their tents overnight? ... They have to go and literally disturb the soil,” she said.

Durango City Council approved an emergency ordinance this week setting aside land parallel to U.S. Highway 160, adjacent to the Durango Dog Park, as a camp for homeless residents to sleep.

Stills said he would like to see a new environmental analysis completed so “the city, the county and the residents of Durango could make some kind of an informed decision on what it means to put a nylon homeless shelter on a radioactive cleanup site.”

Fort Lewis College assistant professor of geosciences Jon Harvey and his students have been studying the ambient radioactivity in the dog park and mapping radiation levels. Preliminary results show where radioactivity is elevated. It is not dramatically higher than background levels, he said.

“That makes it generally OK for normal use of the park – dog walks, Frisbee, sitting to watch the River Parade, etc. However, those low-moderate levels of radioactivity could become more problematic with increased duration of exposure,” Harvey said in an email.

If residents of the proposed camp spent many months or years sleeping in the area, there might be more significant health risks to consider, he said.

Harvey and his students surveyed a small part of the proposed camp’s area and found ambient radiation averaged only slightly above background, he said.

A 2008 Department of Energy report found the area near the proposed camp had the lowest concentrations of uranium in shallow groundwater compared with other areas of the former mill.

“That doesn’t mean the soil there is free of contaminants, but it does suggest that the proposed camp area is among the least-affected areas of the dog park,” he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Environmental Covenant
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Environmental Covenant (PDF)

Poll: Should the city of Durango complete a health risk assessment before moving homeless residents to a location near the Dog Park, which is the site of a former uranium mill?

Yes - 861 - 48.86%

No - 901 - 51.14%

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