GJ in running for mercury disposal

Spot one of seven Department of Energy is considering

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Mesa County is one of seven locations around the United States being considered for storing mercury, an element deemed by Congress too hazardous to export.

“I’ve got a long way to go before I’d welcome a truck full of mercury to this town,” said Paul Nelson, a Grand Junction city councilman in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city and Mesa County negotiated the agreement under which a disposal cell for uranium mill tailings could be built in the desert south of Grand Junction.

That cell, now known as the Grand Junction Disposal Site, was built to contain the remnants of the uranium-milling legacy of Grand Junction going back to the 1940s.

The cell was intended to hold mill tailings and related waste only, former officials with the city and Mesa County said.

The disposal cell “wasn’t meant to be a catchall for everything,” said former Councilman Reford Theobold.

“You’re kidding,” said Kathy Hall, a former Mesa County commissioner. “That was absolutely not the purpose” of the disposal cell. “It was for mill tailings and mill tailings only. The big fear was that they would try to do something else with it.”

The potential Mesa County location was approved by local and federal officials on the condition that it contain no hazardous materials. Mercury is classified as a hazardous material.

Tailings were what was left behind after uranium was processed in the mill in downtown Grand Junction. The sandy material was used in foundations, roads, streets, curbs and other public works during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Program removed the tailings several years later and stored them in what’s now known as the disposal site.

The site holds more than 4.4 million cubic yards of contaminated materials in a cell between U.S. Highway 50 and Grand Mesa, south of Grand Junction.

“I’d like to know who thought that would be a good site” for hazardous-materials storage, said Don Pettygrove, chairman of the Uranium Mill Tailings Citizens Advisory Committee, which worked with local officials on the cleanup and decisions about how to transport the tailings to the disposal site.

Mesa County Administrator Jon Peacock said he was unaware that the Energy Department was considering the county as a possible site for mercury storage, and Grand Junction officials said they were aware of no contacts.

The Energy Department will conduct a scoping session for the project in Grand Junction from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. July 21 at Two Rivers Convention Center as it begins considering locations for the management and storage of 7,500 to 10,000 metric tons of mercury over a 40-year period.

The Energy Department now stores about 1,300 tons of mercury in Oak Ridge, Tenn. That facility is not being considered for additional storage. The Defense Department also stores about 4,800 tons of mercury at various locations.

If the Grand Junction site is used, the storage plan would have to be licensed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s solid waste and hazardous waste program, spokesman Warren Smith said.

“It would have to be done with a carefully crafted hazardous-waste permit,” Smith said.

The Energy Department is looking for domestic storage sites to meet the requirements of 2008 legislation prohibiting the export of mercury.

Other sites under consideration are the Hanford Site, Richland, Wash.; Hawthorne Army Depot, Hawthorne, Nev.; Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho; Kansas City Plant, Kansas City, Mo; and Waste Control Specialists, Andrews, Texas.

Under the legislation, the Energy Department is to designate one or more storage sites by Jan. 1, 2010, and have a facility in operation by the beginning of 2013.


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