A new hot spot
Department of Energy reports possible uranium leakage

SideStory: Forgotten half lifes: Mill site still registers high for several toxins

The Bodo Canyon Cell sits buried beneath several feet of white stuff. A recent report from the Department of Energy revealed increasing levels of uranium in a test well. The readings could mean that the local containment cell is leaking./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

Durango’s smelter fired back to life in 1942 and refined uranium along the banks of the Animas River and for the next 21 years. The mill’s unfortunate legacy was more than 1.2 million cubic yards of radioactive tailings, much of which is currently stored high on Smelter Mountain. Now Durango’s radioactive past may be firing back to life again. A recent Department of Energy inspection revealed elevated levels of uranium near the storage site, a sign that watchdogs fear points to leakage.

The Department of Energy began a major clean-up of the Durango mill site – the current Durango Dog Park – in 1986, and completed the effort in 1991. Much of the mill tailings was transported to the Bodo Canyon Cell, a sealed containment structure 1.5 miles southwest of Durango, in Ridges Basin. While the site was cleaned to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the DOE has acknowledged that the clean-up was not perfect. Residual contaminants remain at the mill site, along Smelter Mountain, in the groundwater and through the Animas River (see related story).

In addition, the agency recently released more distressing news in its annual report on the Bodo disposal cell. Groundwater is regularly monitored to determine cell integrity and to check for leakage of wastes from the cell. While the cell appears to be functioning properly, groundwater tests in one of seven monitoring wells indicated rising levels of uranium contamination. Testing in 2009 approached .077 milligrams of uranium per liter, the “site-specific standard” for the Bodo Cell. By comparison, the EPA’s standard is .004 milligrams per liter.

“For some reason we are seeing an increase in uranium at that test site,” said Joe Desormeaux, health and safety manager with the DOE Office of Legacy Management. “However, this is not a point-of-compliance well, and as far as protection of public health goes, we see no danger.”

Of the seven monitoring wells, several “point-of-compliance” wells are located downhill and closer to Bodo Park. Those wells are currently testing within the threshold. Because the well in question is higher on the mountain, the agency is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We are doing additional analysis, and we’ll be sitting down at the table to discuss options,” Desormeaux said. “But we don’t know why this is happening, and if we don’t know why, we can’t select a course of action.”

There are several possible culprits for the elevated numbers, according to Desormeaux. The locale’s naturally occurring uranium could be leaching into the test well; the well could have crossed a coal seam, which may have spiked the numbers; or the Bodo Canyon Cell could be leaking uranium mill tailings. For Travis Stills, of the Energy Mineral Law Center, the cause of the elevated numbers is beyond doubt.

“Those numbers should be at zero,” he said. “The fact that there’s any reading indicates that the cells are leaking. And the fact that there’s been a rising trend in uranium concentrations is frightening.”

Stills added that he suspects more Bodo Canyon Cell revelations could be on the horizon. “The DOE is notorious for not reporting information,” he said. “Anytime you see that something is actually being disclosed, it’s probably the tip of a pretty big iceberg.”

The Bodo Canyon Cell is perched at the head of a canyon that flows back down to the Animas River. If leakage is actually happening, the local waterway would be the eventual recipient. However, the structure is also located near the rising waters of Lake Nighthorse, the storage component of the Animas-La Plata Project. The reservoir should be full by 2011 and will serve as a recreational resource for the region. In addition, the City of Durango has already purchased an option to buy municipal drinking water from Lake Nighthorse. With this in mind, Michael Black, of the Taxpayers for the Animas River, asked, “Where’s the stuff going? Back to the Animas. What happens when Lake Nighthorse is full? The water table goes up and actually percolates higher into the rock and soil.”

By building the Bodo Canyon Cell, the DOE effectively moved the contamination but did not solve the problem, Stills observed. Given the storage cell’s proximity to Durango and the Animas River, he argued for immediate action from the agency.

“This should have been a fix, not an attempt to make the situation smaller,” Stills said. “They took the mill tailings and perched it above a vital water source, the Animas River, and it could be leaking into Lake Nighthorse. This could be affecting drinking water, agricultural water and the local airshed. The agency should be held to the highest possible standard.”

Black added that it has always been a question of when, not if, the Bodo Canyon Cell would begin leaking. The Taxpayers for the Animas River conducted a study of the site in the 1980s and may now be realizing their initial fears. “None of these containment cells actually work,” he said. “We knew that was going to leak from the beginning. You can try your best, but you can’t contain uranium.” •



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