LS: History Here and Now Column October 10, 2008

Grand Junction: the city that glowed in the dark

Final of a three-part series.

The Climax Uranium Co.’s mill at Grand Junction was the first in the United States to be built strictly for the recovery of uranium with vanadium as a co-product.

The mill operated from June 1951 through March 1970. During that time, it processed 2,281,611 tons of uranium-vanadium ore in sandstone. Records indicate that each ton of ore contained 5.5 pounds of uranium oxide and 28 pounds of vanadium oxide. After processing the ore, the sand residues were placed in tailings ponds at the mill site.

In the mid-1950s, contractors determined that the sand tailings would make excellent backfill around buildings and underground pipes. Climax contracted the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to see
if the commission regulated the tailings. Because the tailings were of a low grade, the AEC said they could not be considered as “source materials” under the Atomic Energy Act.

Climax then began to give the tailings to whoever wanted them.

Climax sent a letter to the Colorado Department of Health in January 1966, stating that tailings had been removed from its mill site for construction purposes and asked if the health department had any objections. The health department replied it had no objections.

As more tailings were removed, health officials began to have concerns that the gamma radiation and radon gas being emitted from the tailings exceeded the surgeon general’s guidelines. By 1966, the health department asked Climax to cease tailings removal. At that time it was estimated that 30,000 tons of tailings had been removed from the mill site.

There was great concern that in the basements of houses where tailings had been used as a backfill the levels of radon gas were a hazard, as radon can cause lung cancer. The use of tailings throughout the city became national news. One article referred to Grand Junction as “The City That Glowed In The Dark.”

In October 1972, the AEC and the state of Colorado announced a joint program to provide remedial action in connection with the uranium mill tailings used in building construction in Mesa County. The federal government would provide 75 percent of the funding, the state 25 percent. This program was known as the Grand Junction Remedial Action Program.

The guidelines for remediation were those of the surgeon general for gamma radiation and radon gas, although the surgeon general stated he did not believe a hazard existed.

Mobile radiation surveys were conducted throughout the city as well as door-to-door inspections. This led to contracts being issued to remove tailings and apply sealants to basement walls and floors and, in some cases, install ventilation equipment in basements.

Under the remedial program, 584 properties were cleaned up. Contaminated materials were stored at a state repository, adjacent to the mill site.

The abandoned tailings piles at mills that operated entirely under the AEC program became the concern of health officials, because many were on the floodplains of river and near populated areas.

In 1977, the Department of Energy detailed engineering assessments of the inactive mill sites. Congressional hearings followed. In November the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 passed.

DOE established the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project. Under the project, federal funding for cleanup was 90 percent and the state 10 percent.

While the state was still cleaning up interior contamination of properties under the remedial program, exterior contamination was found on 96 additional properties.

Under the 1978 act, Environmental Protection Agency standards for gamma radiation and radon gas were followed. These were much lower than the surgeon general’s standards previously used.

More than 4,000 properties in Mesa County were found to exceed EPA standards. These included homes, schools, churches, public buildings, sidewalks and underground utility lines.

Contaminated material that was removed from properties was stored temporarily at the state repository and later moved to the Cheney disposal cell, 18 miles southeast of Grand Junction, where the Climax mill debris and tailings were placed.

When the final vicinity property was cleaned up in 1998, a total of 4,266 had been cleaned up under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act . Grand Junction no longer had the stigma of being a radioactive city.

(John Elmer, S.M. Stoller Corp., was involved with the tailings removal project and supplied data for this article.)

William Chenoweth, a registered professional geologist, studied and evaluated uranium deposits on the Colorado Plateau and in Wyoming and South Dakota for the AEC and succeeding agencies, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy, from 1953 to 1983. He is author of numerous geological road logs and technical articles dealing with the uranium deposits on the Colorado Plateau.

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