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La Plata County wants to clear the air about toxic gas at Bayfield landfill

State health department issued order in 2016 directing expanded remediation
La Plata County is holding a meeting to hear community concerns about the Bayfield landfill and associated groundwater cleanup. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County residents will have a chance to air their concerns and questions about the Bayfield landfill, and its associated groundwater cleanup, during a public meeting in late August.

The landfill, which is owned by La Plata County, was used as a dump for solid waste for years before it closed in 1994. In the mid-2000s, groundwater monitoring showed elevated levels of vinyl chloride. Extremely high levels of the toxic gas can cause health impacts.

“No one is drinking the impacted groundwater, and the county has worked hard to keep it that way,” said Ted Holteen, county spokesman, in a news release Thursday.

The informational meeting will be held virtually at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 25.

The solid waste landfill, located on County Road 223 west of Bayfield, was built in the 1950s and bought by the county in 1970. It holds 100,000 cubic yards of municipal waste on about 15 acres of the site’s 32 acres, according to a 2015 report in The Durango Herald.

After closing the site in 1994, the county monitored its condition for a decade with results showing the groundwater was clean, according to the county news release.

In 2004, monitoring detected levels of vinyl chloride above the Colorado protection standard of 2 parts per billion.

“At this concentration, a person would have to hypothetically drink the groundwater every day, all day, for 30 years to possibly have an adverse health impact,” the county’s news release said. “Fortunately, that hypothetical situation does not exist at the landfill.”

Some people who drink water containing vinyl chloride in excess of the limit over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer, according to drinking water regulations from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Extremely high levels of vinyl chloride can damage the liver, lungs, kidneys, nerves and heart, among other adverse health reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After discovery of the vinyl chloride, the county continued to sample and monitor the groundwater. It found the impacted groundwater traveled a short distance across County Road 223. The county also investigated all nearby drinking water wells that could be impacted, the county’s news release said.

Since the 2004 rise in the toxic vinyl chloride gas, monitoring showed water in the wells was clean, according to the release.

“These wells continue to be monitored by the county, and the wells continue to be uncontaminated,” the release said.

CDPHE, however, said it has not received any evidence to substantiate claims that the landfill is not a risk.

The Bayfield landfill lies within a geologically complex setting. The Solid Waste Regulations contain evaluation, sampling and analysis procedures to ensure groundwater contamination at landfills is correctly delineated and remediated, wrote Laura Dixon, CDPHE spokeswoman, in an email to the Herald.

“CDPHE has determined that the Bayfield landfill is currently not in compliance with those procedures identified in the regulations that would provide certainty that the landfill is not a threat to human health and the environment,” Dixon wrote.

When asked to clarify how the groundwater could be “clean” but still a concern to CDPHE, county environmental official Leslie Jakoby said, “Vinyl chloride may be detected but below CDPHE’s standards.”

Further information was not available Friday afternoon.

The two entities have battled over how to remediate the landfill since 2016.

In 2015, CDPHE asked the county to undertake additional remediation measures. The county said the measures would have cost taxpayers more than $1 million and were unnecessary. Then, in 2016, CDPHE issued an administrative order directing the county to conduct the expanded remediation.

The disagreement prompted years of litigation. In June, a Colorado Supreme Court decision upheld CDPHE’s administrative order.

The case has now returned to the trial court to address the remaining county challenges to the order, the county’s news release said.

The Supreme Court’s June decision also said La Plata County is not entitled to an award of its attorney fees tied to the legal dispute. The attorney fees were estimated to be about $337,000 in August 2020.

“The recent ruling and continuing litigation has not diminished the county’s cleanup or its resolve to protect public health,” the county said. “Throughout the county’s legal case the cleanup has been ongoing and public health is protected. The county is firmly committed to completing the cleanup in a responsible manner that is protective and cost effective.”

People interested in attending the informational meeting about the Bayfield landfill can join via https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82742366812.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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