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A history of local radioactivity

Dear Editors,

In 1880, a lead smelter operation processing ore from mining areas was the beginning of the smelter tailings pile in Durango. This operation processed ore until 1930 when the Depression forced it to close. With the advent of the “Manhattan Project” in the early 1940s, the U.S. government contracted with the Vanadium Corp. of America, a private company, to separate uranium from uranium ore. In 1943, VCA began processing ore at the Smelter Mountain lead smelter site.

According to theDurango Herald, Nov. 23, 2000, “The mill ran off and on through 1963, processing 1.6 million tons of ore. Left behind were arsenic, cadmium, chloride, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, radium and radon gas, nickel, nitrate, selenium, silver, sodium, sulfate, thallium, uranium, vanadium and zinc. There are still some 70 radioactive ‘hotspots’ in Durango.”

I remember as a young man that people would swim in the warm water discharge of the mill. People have told me that they put uranium on their arthritic hands. They fished off the pink radioactive tailings pile. As the pink tailings pile grew and grew, the employees pushed them into the Animas River. Downstream, radioactive readings were registered in Farmington. When the wind blew, fine pink dust covered south Durango. When it rained or snow melted, the water in the gutters ran pink with tailings. The wet tailings collected in rain gutters and ran into concentrated piles in the downspouts. In an effort to control the blowing tailings nuisance, sprinklers were installed to wet them down. This created a radioactive heap-leaching process, driving the radioactivity into the ground water. Later, VCA even won a state award for growing vegetation on the pile. Contractors who needed fill for a road, school playground, backfill for a foundation, and so on, had to look no further than VCA for the material. Because of the wars, hot and cold, the nuclear race with the Russians was more important than public health. Perhaps the government really didn’t know what it wasdoing. Is it possible it still doesn’t?             

When milling ceased, 40 acres of radioactive mill tailings and about 20 acres of radioactive tailings pondsremained. In 1978, Congress ordered the site cleaned4  

up. In the 1980s, the clean up began and continued until 1991. The radioactive material was hauled to Bodo Canyon and entombed. However, isolated patches still remain along the river and continue to contaminate water today. A person can still see the pink soil. None of the lead tailings were removed.

Many people north of Aztec, who drank water from wells, died of cancer. This is not hearsay – there say. I can give family names. I think there is a connection. So do they.Following the clean up, when the A-LP project was excavating for their pumping station, they found radioactive water. Sprinklers had only leached radioactivity into the water table for a period of 25-plus years, but the cleanup people are willing to let “Mother Nature” clean it up over a period of 100 years. Can you imagine that?

If I were a southsider, I would do the following: I would check my home for radon gas, especially the basement and inside the foundation. I would not let my kids play outside until I had a metal analysis test run on the dirt. All my kids ate dirt when they were small. Are your kids sick all the time? Are you? Check the soil around and under your home.

Have a meeting. Surely, you can figure out a way to blame it on the train.

– Gary Towne, Mancos


Send Islam to the ash heap of history

Dear Editors,

Religious faith can be a prime guiding factor in human affairs. When that includes an aggressive dogma of vanquishing those external to it, it becomes particularly dangerous. Islamic jihad’s lethal violence against non-Muslims and Muslims alike is such a danger. Its jihad is neither a distortion nor a gross exaggeration of the religion’s concept. Reality confirms jihad’s highly developed doctrine and legal system, rooted in Islamic scripture and tradition, based on standard Islamic sources, precedents and methods of deduction, all independent of any dubious or capricious interpretations of the Koran or the Hadith, not withstanding the teachings of imams or madrassa. In fact, even the Koranic Verse of the Sword (9:5), which gives the nonbeliever, the infidel, only the choice of conversion or death, overrides all 124 preceding verses often cited by Islamic apologists who hope to prove its tolerance and benevolence.

Jihad has gone on for hundreds of years; it accepts no compromise. To resist such an evil as Islamic terrorism without naming it, without revealing its beliefs,4 without unmasking its intentions, without dealing effectively with its fifth columns, without condemning it unconditionally, without a determined declaration to win the battle against it, will not provide a solution over it, only a means to be devoured by it.

The War on Terror can never be totally won in the sense of eliminating it altogether. And it’s naïve to demand such a goal. However, we can successfully arrive at a point where the threat comes as close to zero as is humanly and prudently possible. Peace is always the byproduct of defeating evil. The key to that here is not in conquering Mecca, but in guiding Mecca’s place, in the modern civilized world, to the ash-heap of history. That won’t be easy, but it can be managed, wisely, resolutely and permanently. But it will take a concerted effort by us all, working and moving in the same direction. To doubt and condemn Western civilization as the underlying cause of jihad, and not jihad itself, is a deeply significant and fatally dangerous nonsense.

– Kim Rogalin, via e-mail


Return of the robber barons

Dear Editors,

Since 1872, mining interests have been able to claim ownership of public land for the purpose of extracting minerals at little cost. It led to abuses such as the mining company that extracted $10 billion worth of gold from a stretch of Nevada desert that cost a mere $10,000. Embarrassed by that giveaway, Congress put a moratorium on the practice in 1994. Now, a bill in Congress would not only end the moratorium, but make it easier to claim land with no intention to mine.

Because the West is studded with millions of mining claims dating to the 1800s, former Interior Department officials say the measure would open the door to the widespread privatization of federal lands used by millions of people for hiking, hunting and off-road driving. Critics ranging from conservationists to hunters have denounced the mining proposal. “How are you going to protect hunting- and fishing-access opportunities and the diverse wildlife that exists on our public lands if it is no longer in public hands?” asked Craig Sharpe, the executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, a hunting and fishing group.

In Colorado, one question centers on the “fourteeners.” Public access to three of the peaks about two hours from Denver was closed during the summer of 2005 by owners of mining claims who control sections of popular trails to the summits. Now, many more may be closed. Roger Flynn, a mining law professor at the University of Colorado, said, “This essentially goes back to the robber baron era. As long as you have a big enough checkbook, you can get as much of the land as you want.”

If stopping this bill in Congress fails, the best recourse would probably be to contribute to groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land, in the hopes that they will buy up large blocks of land to hold in the public interest. Should that day come, it will sadly mean that public land is safer in the hands of a private organization than in the possession of the government.

– David A. Lien, via e-mail