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Grand Junction keeps its grave for radioactive, Cold War dirt thanks to new coronavirus-aid package via Colorado Sun

Trump’s signature means a disposal site can remain open for another decade, averting millions of dollars in added expenses

Nancy Lofholm

Cold War-era Grand Junction had a widespread benefit from a uranium mill in its backyard: dirt — fine, sand-like, multipurpose dirt.

The Climax Uranium Mill along the Colorado River offered an endless supply of the gray dirt that was free for the taking by anyone who needed material to use in sidewalks and roadways, in mortar for bricks, in golf-course sand traps, in tree potting soil, and in kids’ sandboxes.

About 2.2 million tons of the material from the Climax mill was spread around the Grand Valley from the late 1940s through the 1960s. That was before the U.S. Department of Energy had an “oops” realization in 1969 that cancer-causing gamma rays and radon gas came along with the fill dirt that was the byproduct of ore crushed and ground to extract uranium for atomic bombs.

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Thanks to a single line that was tucked between “Space Radiation Research” and something called “Sense of Congress” on page 3,719 of the 5,593-pageConsolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (more commonly known as the COVID relief bill), the disposal site can remain open for another decade.

That means the remaining radioactive dirt around Grand Junction and from other uranium mining and milling locations around the Western Slope — hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of it — can continue to be removed and disposed of cheaply because there will continue to be a specialized radioactive dump for it.

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The DOE Legacy Management disposal site accepts contaminated dirt at no cost. The cell is the last government-owned, noncommercial disposal facility in the country to still accept uranium mill tailings. Without that containment site, contractors, highway project managers, homeowners and a number of former uranium mill towns spread across the Western Slope would have had to haul any radioactive tailings to a commercial dump west of Salt Lake City. The costs would have reached into the millions for larger projects.

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On the lower end, Grand Junction homeowners and homebuyers who want to rid their property of leftover tailings also stand to benefit. They will be able to continue to take buckets and pickup loads of contaminated dirt to an interim facility at the city shops.

The radioactive material is placed in an old sewer clarifier there. It is essentially a heavy-duty concrete tank. The city then trucks the material to the DOE containment site. In recent years, about 1,000 cubic yards of the contaminated material are dug up around Grand Junction each year. That’s about 5,000 bathtubs of dirt.

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Stockpiling radioactive sand

How much remains in Grand Junction is a big question mark. The state health department has records of about 72,000 potentially contaminated sites in and around Grand Junction but estimates that only about 20% of those sites are contaminated enough for removal.

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Homeowners and contractors who were big fans of the very fine gray sand also were not eager to get rid of it. Some didn’t believe it posed any danger. Their kids were known to entertain themselves by sliding down the tailings pile on pieces of cardboard. A Miss Atomic Energy was crowned in Grand Junction each year and went home with a pickup load of radioactive ore as a prize.

So, when the DOE announced that it would no longer be available, there was a rush to gather as much of it as possible. Cosby said some people stockpiled it in their backyards.

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The New York Times delved into Grand Junction’s radioactive dirt conundrum in a lengthy 1971 article headlined, “Dear Sir: Your House Is Built On Radioactive Uranium Waste.”

The headline referred to a letter drafted by the state health department as a warning to property owners. That letter said there was no “precise scientific information” about the long-term health effects of low-level radiation, but ended with the admonition: “We strongly recommend, however, that you make every effort to lower the radiation exposure level in your home by removing the uranium tailings from your property.”

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The problem didn’t come to public attention, according to the article, until after 1966, when two doctors from the state health department and the U.S. Public Health Service were doing an inspection in Grand Junction and saw trucks unloading uranium tailings in town. They concluded that such tailings placed beneath a home could create the same health-threatening conditions as those found inside a uranium mine.

The health department calculated that occupants of some of the contaminated homes were exposed to the equivalent of 553 chest X-rays per year.

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