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|May 29-June 4, 2008
Unanswered questions remain about pollution at Valmont Butte
by Pamela White
It’s the $2,575,000 conundrum: what should the city of Boulder do with Valmont Butte? The battered parcel of land, best known for the volcanic dike that rises above Valmont Road, has seen its share of use — and abuse — at the hands of humans. American Indians used the site in their ceremonies, camping below during the winter, hunting on the surrounding plains and burying their loved ones. Pioneer families built a cemetery and used the area for grazing and agriculture.
Then industry arrived. The site became home to a gold mill, which became a fluorspar mill, which became a gold mill once more, which closed at last, leaving radioactive tailings ponds behind.
Radioactive soil was transported to the site and buried on Valmont Butte, as were sealed barrels of chemical waste. Drums, tanks and transformers were dumped on the ground, and with them toxic chlorine, PCBs, paints, lubrication oils, wood finishing products and a host of combustible, corrosive and flammable substances.
As the flotation mill fell into disuse, a cement/asphalt plant was erected nearby. To the west of the site, recycling and trash collection facilities were constructed, and to the south an electrical plant.
When the city bought the land in 2000 for more than $2.5 million, it must have seemed the perfect place to compost human feces and teach firefighters how better to put out fires and drive enormous fire engines — a wasteland, a dump, an industrial graveyard.
Instead, Valmont Butte became an expensive headache, as American Indian and pioneer groups stepped forward to save what was left of their cultural and historical heritage. City planners scrapped plans first for the composting facility and then relocated the firefighter training facility, hoping to sell the land to an entity that would put it in American Indian hands and to recoup the city’s money.
With that goal in mind, City Council members must decide at their June 3 meeting whether to accept an appraisal commissioned by the city and prospective buyer, the Trust for Public Lands (TPL), that would set the price for the land.
But before the decision is made, a local watchdog organization is asking the city to answer a host of troubling questions. Did city officials thoroughly research the property before they invested taxpayer dollars to buy it? Are appropriate steps being taken to clean up the mess at Valmont Butte? And who should be held fiscally accountable for the cleanup — the companies that caused the contamination or the taxpayers who now own the land?
• • •
When City Council voted in August 2005 not to build a human-waste composting facility on Valmont Butte, it seemed a victory for the local American Indian community, which had fought to maintain access to the butte, where for generations Plains nations had held a variety of ceremonies, including the inipi, or sweat lodge. Yet six months earlier, events had taken place that left some in the Indian community worried.
Robert Cross, an Oglala Lakota spiritual leader who has been running sweat lodge ceremonies on Valmont Butte for several years, recalls noticing that his eyes would sting during the inipi. He also noticed as far back as 2003 and even earlier that lodge participants reporting having strange skin rashes and respiratory problems.
“I’ve got a voice to sing the native songs, and I started noticing that my voice was going, that I couldn’t even sing,” he says. “And a lot of guys who came up to sing the songs we use in the inipi were also losing their voices. We were coughing and hacking any time we went into one of the lodges up there, but every time we went and did a lodge elsewhere, we never felt that way.”
Cross says city officials had told him that there was naturally occurring radiation on the land, but never mentioned other kinds of contamination.
“We didn’t feel like we were in any danger because the city acted like there was nothing to worry about,” he says.
Cross recalls watching as investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took soil and water samples from the land for testing in late 2004. He remembers feeling concerned when an investigator explained that the sweat lodge was in a safe area but that there were areas near the lodge that were highly contaminated.
His concerns grew when the investigator suggested that he and other inipi participants keep the shoes and clothes they wore during ceremonies in plastic bags and wash them at a laundry before bringing them home. He wondered how the land could be safe if the EPA investigator was suggesting such measures.
Just as importantly, he wondered what contamination there might be in the rocks, water and plants on the butte, all of which make their way into Native ceremonies. (Stones from Valmont Butte have long been gathered and taken to sweat lodges far from Boulder because the basalt holds heat well and can be used and reused.)
Cross says he asked the EPA investigator whether they’d tested the sage, which is gathered from the land for ceremonial and medicinal use by Indian people. The investigator reportedly told Cross EPA had not tested the plants.
And suddenly the coughing and the skin rashes that some participants reported getting took on a new and troublesome significance for Cross.
“We never even understood these contaminants because none of us ever thought that someone who is in authority would allow people to go and do something and be in an area like that if it’s not OK,” he says. “And what is ‘OK’?”
Cross says it’s only in the past six weeks that he’s begun to understand the full extent of the contamination on Valmont Butte.
“We don’t like to be there without knowing what the impact of all these toxins are, and we really haven’t been given a clear insight into what these toxins are and what they’re really doing to us,” he says.
Now he’s afraid to hold lodges on Valmont Butte and has begun to hold them elsewhere. At the same time, however, he and other American Indian leaders are reluctant to vacate Valmont Butte, a place their ancestors have prayed and held ceremonies for hundreds of years. They don’t want to lose access to yet another sacred site.
“We’re afraid,” he says. “We’re really afraid to actually do a ceremony up there, but we’re wanting to keep that site available whenever they decide if they’re going to clean it up.”
In addition to wanting to know more about the health risks posed by the contaminants on Valmont Butte, Cross would like to know why he and others weren’t made aware of the potential hazards associated with the site.
• • •
Before one can answer that question, one must perhaps ask another: how much did city officials know about contamination at Valmont Butte before they bought the land?
Adrienne Anderson, a former environmental studies instructor from the University of Colorado, has been trying to get a handle on this issue on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC) for some time. It’s of particular interest to her, because she’s known about contamination at Valmont Butte for a long time.
Anderson first heard of Valmont Butte during the fall semester of 1998 while still an instructor at CU. Tucker Chenoweth, a student in her controversial Environmental Ethics class had gone for a bike ride and found himself at Valmont Butte. It was the pioneer cemetery that initially caught Chenoweth’s eye, but while there he saw something else: more than 10 corroded 50-gallon drums half buried in the soil. Nearby was a warning sign with a faded radiation symbol on it.
Chenoweth had just stumbled across a site that would occupy him and six of his fellow students for the rest of the semester. The result was a report titled, “Valmont Butte: Toxic Mess for Sale,” which uncovered a history of pollution that went beyond the ore mill and demonstrated that city officials had long been concerned about contamination at the site.
Among the students’ findings were these:
—In 1967, state health officials found high levels of alpha radiation and radium 226 in a domestic well near Valmont Butte and, after testing the mill’s tailings pond, wrote to General Chemical, which then owned the land, to caution that the tailings pond might be the source of well contamination.
—In 1970, radiation tests of the onsite pond and eight domestic wells near Valmont Butte revealed levels of gross alpha radiation four times higher than would be allowable under current law.
—In 1971, 150 truckloads of soil contaminated with radium were brought by the city to Valmont Butte, then owned by Allied Chemical Corporation, from a site at 3rd and Pearl streets, where a radium processing facility had left soil dangerously radioactive, with readings 20,000 times above normal background radiation.
—In 1972, the state health department found that there were two discharge points at the Allied mill — one that flowed to the irrigation ditch northwest of the mill and another that discharged into the Public Service Company cooling ponds. The state called for further surveillance.
—In 1973, the county health department responded to a complaint from the sheriff that Allied Chemical was discharging chemicals into a ditch along the road. The water was found to have a pH of greater than 8.0. Tests showed that water from the ditch empties into a holding pond near what was then a KOA campground before moving on to another ditch and then eventually into Boulder Creek.
—In 1982, the state health department submitted the site to the EPA as a possible candidate for cleanup under the Superfund program.
—Also in 1982, the EPA and state health department completed a radiation study of the area and found radiation levels ranging from 22 millirems, which they considered to be normal background levels, up to a high of 900 millirems. The highest radiation levels were found along the site’s northern side near Valmont Road.
The students’ investigation revealed something else: the land was for sale. Valmont Butte Corporation, which had purchased the property for $10 — 10 bucks — was offering to sell it for $3 million.
“At the time, we just laughed,” Anderson recalls. “We thought, ‘Well, nobody’s going to buy that.’”
Because the information her students had found was all part of the public record and obtainable by anyone who asked for it, she said she felt no reason to step forward with it. Now she wonders if that was the right decision.
Anderson, who lives in Denver, didn’t hear about the city’s purchase of the property until it was a done deal. She assumed the city had done due diligence and knew everything she knew about the property. But as the City Council moved toward selling the land to TPL, she began to wonder.
Her concerns were first itemized in a letter to City Council dated Oct. 31, 2007. Those concerns were reiterated during a Nov. 27, 2007, meeting with Frank Bruno, then city manager, and other top city officials.
Specifically, Anderson and RMPJC wanted to know whether City Council members had been given full and accurate information about the contamination at Valmont Butte — including possible offsite contamination of nearby wells — before the decision to buy the land was made. They also wanted some explanation for the apparent disparity between the public record concerning Valmont Butte and the 2005 EPA test results and sought reassurances that the city’s efforts at clean-up would actually address the environmental problems at the site.
Bruno responded to RMPJC with a letter dated Dec. 21, in which he wrote, “There are no records that indicate that city officials were aware of any offsite contamination of neighborhood wells when the Valmont Butte Property was purchased.”
Bruno stated that the city was aware of 1,500 cubic yards of radium-contaminated soil that had been dumped at the site from 3rd and Pearl streets and that the city’s plan for “remediating” the radioactive tailings pond — covering it with clean fill dirt — would adequately deal with the radiation.
“This is a standard and acceptable practice and has been approved by the CDPHE,” Bruno states. “The city reviewed the capping method with consulting engineers and regulating agencies and believes capping to be an acceptable method of containing the contamination at the Valmont Butte site.”
With regard to which parties ought to be held accountable for pollution at the site, Bruno responded, “Unknown at this time. The city accepts its responsibility as owners of the property.”
For Anderson and others, Bruno’s admission that the city did not know about possible well contamination is disturbing.
“Such an admission indicates that city officials failed in their fiduciary responsibilities to Boulder’s taxpayers to adequately determine the potential liabilities posed by the site,” she wrote in a letter to City Council dated May 12.
She finds his assertion that the city doesn’t know which parties to hold accountable for cleanup of the site, as federal and state records make clear connections between contaminants and companies that operated on the site.
“This is information my students found,” she says. “It’s strange when 19- and 20-year-old college students can do better research than city officials.”
Anderson doesn’t want to see city taxpayers stuck with the cleanup bill, nor does she want to see corporations get away with polluting the city’s landscape. She believes a thorough investigation into the city’s decision to buy the property is in order, together with an investigation of pollution at the site and an investigation into the EPA’s reasons for not designating Valmont Butte as a Superfund site.
• • •
City Councilman Macon Cowles, an environmental lawyer, has questions about Valmont Butte, as well, though they differ from Anderson’s. Elected to council this past November, Cowles was not on City Council when the decision was made to buy the land eight years ago. But as someone familiar with environmental law, he has a host of concerns with regard to contamination on the property.
“I think that it’s important that we understand the extent of the contamination on the site, and I don’t know the extent to which the city has done that yet,” he says.
Some of the concerns he’d like to make certain the city has addressed include:
—the nature and extent of the contamination at Valmont Butte and whether it’s moving;
—where the contamination came from specifically;
—how many yards of material were delivered to the site by each polluter and over what period of time;
—the nature of the materials brought there, i.e., their size, their consistency and how they interact with the environment;
—what kinds of heavy metals and radionuclides and other pollutants were part of the material that was dumped at the site;
—what happened to the materials after they were brought there;
—how the receiving site was prepared, for example, whether there were liners in place;
—what the peer-reviewed literature says about the identified toxic materials;
—how conditions at the butte might impact the toxins;
—and what the soil and well water is like in similar areas not impacted by the butte.
Cowles says he’d also like to make certain the city has hired an expert to explain the EPA’s 2005 analysis of the site and the results.
It’s the type of analysis he would provide a client if he were the attorney handling a case involving a site like Valmont Butte, he says. If the work hasn’t already been done, it would take about 80 hours of attorney or paralegal time at a cost of about $30,000 to $40,000, he says. But the information is critical in enabling City Council to make the right decision with regard to its treatment of the property.
“I have asked these questions of the city manager and city attorney,” he says. “I’ve laid out the kinds of things I’d like to know about to see if we’ve put it all together, to see if someone has gone through and analyzed that stuff. I don’t know what the answer is yet.”
He would also like to know whether the city can seek money under Superfund laws from Valmont Butte’s previous owners and those who’ve dumped pollutants on the land. Doing so would help the city recoup some of the cost of cleanup.
The city’s “remediation” plan, approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), involves three phases. Phase I involved removal of hazardous material, like the drums and transformers, from the site and was completed at a cost of about $169,000. Phase II involves removal of prairie dogs from Valmont Butte, while Phase III consists of capping the tailings pond.
Phase II hasn’t gone as smoothly as city officials would have liked, because prairie dogs aren’t cooperating. They’ve burrowed in the tailings pond area, breaking the existing soil cap, and must be removed. City officials are currently seeking landowners with approved sites who might be willing to take the prairie dogs; they’re also considering removing the rodents to another place on Valmont Butte. They’re also looking at what kind of barrier might keep prairie dogs from burrowing in that area in the future.
“They didn’t get the memo,” Cowles says of the prairie dogs.
The fact that critters have demonstrated the weakness of a soil cap before the city has finished remediation on the site indicates to Anderson and others that a soil cap, which wouldn’t clean the area but would simply cover up polluted soil, is inadequate.
Anderson points out that the city of Denver and concerned citizens demanded that contaminated soil at the Shattuck Superfund site be excavated, not simply capped. In that case, radioactive soils had been capped by cement. Large tents were put up to prevent the spread of radioactive dust, and the soil was removed.
But it’s not just burrowing by prairie dogs that makes a cap questionable; it’s the potential for migration of radioactive materials underground.
“[A soil cap] is one of the tools used to put a barrier between toxic materials and a vector by which those toxic materials do damage to people and animals, but it doesn’t take care of the underground migration that can occur,” Cowles says. “So a dirt cap that’s created in such a way and at such a level that prairie dogs can pierce it isn’t doing what needs to be done.”
Whether CDPHE approved the soil cap or not, the issue of how best to deal with the radioactive contamination might well require further exploration.
• • •
Cowles says it’s important for citizens to understand that City Council is doing its best to reach the best possible resolution with regard to Valmont Butte.
“It’s been a great expense for the city to find an alternate site, at least for the fire-training part of it,” he says. “It wouldn’t be fair for anyone to think that the city is trying to do this on the cheap. We’re trying to make the best decisions for a piece of land that the city now owns.”
Council members remain supportive of American Indian peoples’ rights to the land. That’s why in 2006, City Council directed city staff to find a buyer for 71 acres of the 101-acre parcel, preferably Trust for Public Lands (TPL), which could oversee transferring the site into the possession of the 10 American Indian nations that consider Valmont Butte sacred.
On April 24, the city and TPL received the results of an appraisal of those 71 acres. The appraiser recommended razing the flotation mill — a suggestion that outrages some who want to mill to receive recognition as a national historic site. If the mill is razed, the appraiser set a value for the parcel at $2,560,000. If the mill remains, the value drops to $1,280,000.
The appraiser stated that the “highest and best use” of the land would be to divide the property into two 35-acre parcels for low-density residential development, making provisions for easements to protect American Indian sacred sites and the pioneer cemetery.
The idea of residential development seems shocking and absurd to Anderson, who asks why anyone would want to live on a radioactive dump even after remediation is completed.
(“The view is great,” Doug Newcomb reportedly told City Council members.)
But now that the appraiser has come out with a potential price for the land, City Council must make a decision. The issue will be on the table at the June 3 council meeting.
Anderson and RMPJC have stated that they think the city needs to conduct a thorough investigation of the site and the process by which the city bought the property before it is sold. Further, they want to see permanent cleanup, not capping of the contamination.
“We would advocate that Valmont Butte be considered for historic designation and protected against any further degrading or desecrating activities,” Anderson wrote in her May 12 letter to City Council. “Because Valmont Butte is considered sacred by Native Americans and of historic value to Valmont’s pioneers, as well as of geologic significance to this entire region, it should be returned to a position as the true high point, both for the city of Boulder and in Boulder County.”
But Cowles isn’t in favor of a solution that would require the city spend millions more on cleanup without being able to sell the land to recoup some of those costs.
“I’d have a hard time giving this property away,” he says. “I would still want to accommodate Native uses up there, but it’s hard to justify spending a couple of million dollars in addition to what’s already been spent on the property to do clean up and then not to use the property under circumstances like we have in Boulder, where we’re short of land.”
For Cross and other American Indians, the complex issue boils down to one very simple, basic thing.
“All we want to do is pray and have a place to pray,” he says.
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