Valmont Butte’s got a dam problem, among others

Proof by assertion: Sometimes informally referred to as proof by repeated assertion, is a logical fallacy in which a proposition is repeatedly restated regardless of contradiction. Sometimes this may be repeated until challenges dry up, at which point it is asserted as fact due to its not being contradicted (argumentum ad nauseam). In other cases its repetition may be cited as evidence of its truth, in a variant of the appeal to authority or appeal to belief fallacies.” —Wikipedia

We’ve all heard the old adage, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Sometimes, particularly in politics, this is done intentionally to deceive. At other times, assertions of false, or at least questionable, information can find their way into the public sphere and get passed around as truth for decades because they are what the people saying them want to believe. This repetition seems to happen when the questionable information serves the economic purposes of the folks making the assertions. You could say money talks, but it doesn’t always get its facts right.

Several such assertions have made their way into the lexicon of environmental monitoring and remediation at Valmont Butte over the years, but nobody is questioning them because it would likely cost more money to clean up the butte if the suspect information were found to be even partially wrong. How much more money? Possibly tens of millions of dollars, or even more if human health issues are involved. That’s plenty of incentive to blindly accept decades-old information and repeat it as fact, even if current knowledge of the site contradicts it.

Here are a few examples of flawed assertions that have determined the fate of contamination at the butte in the past and are still guiding environmental policies at the site today.

Assertion #1: The Allied Chemical mill site at Valmont Butte is composed only of the mill buildings and the two tailings ponds located on the 103-acre property now owned by the City of Boulder.

Assertion #2: The Valmont dike creates an impermeable barrier that prevents any potential groundwater contamination on the property from migrating to the north. Therefore, the primary tailings pond can serve in perpetuity as a safe disposal pit for the estimated 370,000 to 1.1 million tons of radioactive tailings containing dangerous levels of lead and arsenic.

Assertion #3: There is no groundwater on the property and, therefore, no potential for groundwater to enter or escape from the primary tailings pond.

Assertion #4: There is no evidence of completed pathways to human exposure from contamination created by the Allied milling operation.

These four assertions have guided nearly every decision regarding the status of contamination and clean-up at Valmont Butte for the past 30 years. And yet, there is substantial evidence that each of these assertions is critically flawed to one degree or another.

Assertion #1: The Allied mill site at Valmont Butte is composed only of the mill buildings and the two tailings ponds located on the 103-acre property now owned by the City of Boulder.

As a result of defining the Allied mill site as that portion of its operation that was located only on the property now owned by the city, in 1982 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to score the site high enough to qualify it for the Superfund’s National Priority List (NPL). The city’s 103-acre property missed the NPL by less than one point, scoring a 27.8 on the EPA’s hazardous ranking system (HRS) out of the 28.5 needed to make the list.

Had the EPA chosen to score the entire Allied mill site, including that portion of its operation located on the Public Service Company’s property adjacent to and south of the city’s land, it would most likely have reached the 28.5 threshold, with room to spare.

That’s because the portion of the Allied mill site left out of the agency’s scoring process contained a fairly large tailings pond that subsequent testing has been found to contain lead contamination as high as 8,630 parts per million.

Testing just 50 feet farther down the slope below the tailings pond and even close to Leggett Reservoir found lead at 34,800 parts per million. As a matter of perspective, that’s roughly 2.3 million times drinking water standards.

This lead-contaminated tailings pond, plus another tailings pond that was located to its west and also used by Allied, are located just above Leggett Reservoir. Leggett is one of the three connected and circulating Public Service Company lakes that are used to cool water at the company’s coal-fired plant known as Valmont Station, whose towers have been familiar to Boulder area residents for decades. It appears from records that the EPA is unaware of the existence of this second tailings pond even today, and as a result, has yet to test it for contamination — let alone score it. Also, the EPA has incorrectly stated that the one tailings pond it does know about on Public Service land was used originally by the old Culbertson mill and later by Allied. This is incorrect, as the pond was not constructed until after 1937, a full quarter century after the Culbertson mill stopped operation. This type of inadequate investigation and incorrect assumption has been par for the course for much of the EPA’s work on the Allied mill site.

What should have been even more important to the Allied mill HRS score than the tailings ponds was the fact that the lakes on this adjacent property were used by Allied’s milling operation as a discharge point. For years, the chemical giant actually pumped its presumably radioactive, lead-contaminated tailings pond water directly into the reservoir, a process that should have caused the lakes (they are connected and circulating) receiving the thousands of gallons of contaminated water a day to also be tested and scored as part of the contiguous Allied mill site operation.

Considering that the lakes receiving Allied’s contaminated discharge — apparently with the full knowledge of Public Service Company — were wildlife preserves as well as being part of the Boulder Creek and St. Vrain watersheds, one would think that this unpermitted contaminated discharge would surely have been worth one additional point in the EPA’s site score.

In fact, it should have been worth far more than that, because these same lakes historically discharged millions of gallons of water a year that quickly made its way into Boulder Creek and presumably, to some extent, into the intake points along the creek that fed the water supply for surrounding towns, like Lafayette.

But it wasn’t to be. It now appears that the EPA may have inexplicably let something as insignificant as a chain-link fence on the property line be reason enough to divide the Allied mill site into two pieces before scoring it for the NPL. 

This aerial photo from the 1940s shows that Allied Chemical’s mill operation included two tailings ponds on Public Service Company’s property to the south (the blue line is the property line). Allied also discharged tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water per day into Leggett Reservoir, which is also located on Public Service Company property.

On a memo dated Dec. 27, 1996, Pat Smith, a site assessment manager for the EPA, wrote a handwritten note that sheds light on this issue.

The original memo concerned a report about contamination on the Public Service property south of what is now the city’s Valmont property. Smith’s note was scribbled in the margins of another EPA employee’s typewritten memo about whether the report could have any bearing on the Allied site to the north. Smith’s handwritten response read as follows:

“The ‘site’ under Superfund is the contamination & where it’s come to be located, not a fenceline. Related sources can be grouped to define the site.”

As a result of the EPA splitting the contamination between the two properties, it is unclear whether any of Allied’s impact on the Public Service property was ever considered for the HRS score for the Valmont site. If it had been added, the entire butte, and possibly even more of the surrounding area, would likely have been cleaned up 30 years ago.

And more importantly, the failure to define the Allied butte site to include its entire operation has made it possible for the city, the EPA, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the county, and Public Service to pretend that the public has never been impacted by Allied’s contamination. The phrase is, “there is no evidence of completed pathways to human exposure.” It’s hard to find a completed pathway when something as simple as a chain-link fence is interpreted as a break in the pathway. This example represents only one of the contortions that regulatory agencies have gone through concerning Allied’s Valmont butte mill site over the years to not find what they fear finding most: contamination poisoning the public.

Michelle Aguayo, spokesperson for Xcel, the parent company of Public Service, has denied requests from Boulder Weekly to meet with company officials about the possible cross-contamination between the city’s Valmont Butte site and the Public Service property.

“I have approached a number of people on this story, and the overall consensus is that we’re not sure how we fit into your story other than the fact our property is next to the Butte,” she said in an email. “Xcel Energy follows all local, state and federal guidelines related to our plant operations.”

After answering a few emailed questions regarding issues like Xcel’s permit to discharge selenium into the watershed and outflows into South Boulder Creek, Aguayo again declined to set up a meeting between Boulder Weekly and Xcel officials knowledgeable about the history of the plant and its processes.

“We do not believe we are a part of the story of the Valmont Butte, as we have seen thus far,” she wrote.

Finally, in a Feb. 28 phone interview, when confronted with more specific examples of the Xcel property receiving contamination from the Allied mill, Aguayo said the tailings pond was last used in 1977 and was subsequently capped.

As for BW’s request for an in-person interview, she said, “That’s something we’re still not interested in taking part in.”

Aguayo and Xcel Regional Vice President Jerome Davis referred Boulder Weekly to the company’s attorneys.

Assertion #2: The Valmont dike creates an impermeable barrier that prevents any potential groundwater contamination on the property from migrating to the north. Therefore, the primary tailings pond can serve in perpetuity as a safe disposal pit for the estimated 370,000 to 1.1 million tons of radioactive tailings containing dangerous levels of lead and arsenic.

This is by far the simplest of the four assertions to debunk. So simple, in fact, that it defies all logic as to how many times some version of this patently false statement appears in the public health and environmental records of the EPA, CDPHE and Boulder County Department of Health (BCDH) concerning Valmont Butte and its dike. It is so misleading that it can lead one to question what agencies such as the EPA and CDPHE have to gain by repeating such questionable information. Unfortunately, there may be an answer to that question.

Before we can get to who may have been exposed, we need to understand how it could happen in terms of topography.

Without belaboring the geologic details, what we know today as the Valmont Butte is a geologic dike that is roughly a mile-long ridge of porphyritic basalt. The dike thrust its way through the Pierre shale millions of years ago. As the ground has eroded, the basalt, which is harder than the surrounding rock, has become taller than its more quickly eroding peers. The dike is approximately 25 to 100 feet thick and, most importantly, decreases in height from the west to east. It has a series of high and low points visible at the surface along its entire length. Some geologists say it is impermeable, while others say it could be fractured and allow water to work its way through the formation. These opposing opinions don’t matter when it comes to Assertion #2.

What makes this assertion false is that a very significant portion of the contaminated material in the primary tailings pond (a 14-acre waste bin) is resting not against the “impermeable” dike, as advertised so often in the records, but against a large, man-made dam that was fabricated out of contaminated tailings in 1936 to fill a gaping hole where the dike dips down between two higher points, or buttes.

In the old days, Valmont Butte was referred to on maps as “Valmont Buttes” because it appeared as a series of buttes rising from the surrounding plains, as opposed to a single, continuous ridge. As can be seen in the photo above, at one time you could stand on what is today the bottom of the 40-foot-deep primary tailings pond and look straight through the missing area of the dike to the Keeter house, located directly across Valmont Road to the north. The photo shows the view through the gap that was filled by the tailings pond dike dam in 1936. Sheep are grazing in what is today the bottom of the primary tailings pond. It is the spot where the city intends to store, in perpetuity, 370,000 to 1.1 million tons (depending on whom you ask) of low-level radioactive mill tailings contaminated by substantial amounts of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.

Not only is there no “impermeable” dike in this large section of the primary pond’s northern side, the bottom of the dam is actually lower than the center of the tailings pond (see engineering map from 1936 on page 19). This means that any groundwater that has migrated, infiltrated or otherwise become pooled or perched in the tailings pond will naturally move, albeit quite slowly, downhill along the shale bottom of the pond to the north. Unfortunately, there is no impermeable barrier to the north to stop such a migration, so the water would likely pass through the few feet of contaminated tailings that now comprise the dam, and escape the confines of the primary tailings pond. After that, it is only a few feet farther to the groundwater aquifer to the north.

But would groundwater in the tailings pond naturally move to the north?

Or would it move to the east, along the dike, as the EPA has claimed is the only possible escape route for such water? The short answer is yes, it might go east as well, but it would primarily move north. The historic evidence suggests that the northern pathway through the dike dam has always been the natural pathway for waters through this section of the property.

The EPA’s Valmont Butte records suggest that groundwater on the property would most likely be pooling and migrating according to the surface features of the property. In speaking with numerous experts on this subject, Boulder Weekly has likewise been told that this is generally the case for most groundwater, with some exceptions.

So what do the surface features tell us about likely groundwater paths in and around the primary tailings pond?

Visiting the site today, you could get the impression that any groundwater making its way into the tailings pond area would be trapped in a 14-acre bowl or basin. But this impression of the tailings pond, in its dry and bulldozed state, is merely an illusion created by the manner in which the contaminated tailings and the fill dirt on top of them have been piled and shaped by earth-moving equipment.

While scraping and plowing does, in fact, help direct and control surface water runoff to some extent, it doesn’t significantly change the slow, natural movement of subsurface water, which is largely directed by the hard shale and basalt features below the surface of the land. Therefore, to understand groundwater movement in the primary tailings pond area, we have to examine what the topography of the land was like before the tailings pond existed, and there are historic maps that can help us do just that.

The earliest of these maps of the butte is a hand-drawn map created by one of the first farmers living on its slopes (see the 1800s map on page 18). This map shows an important feature on the butte that is nearly, but not totally, invisible today. It shows a ravine running downhill, northeast, from the east side of the Valmont Cemetery, straight through the gap between the two buttes that is now occupied by the 1936 dike dam. This naturally occurring ravine would likely be a significant path for subsurface water (even seasonal) to move through the tailings pond area.

Even today, the upper portion of this ravine can be seen coming down the hill from the Public Service property to the south of the tailings pond, entering the pond at its southwestern corner. Likewise, the northernmost end of the ravine shown on the map can be seen coming down the hill from the base of the dike dam to Valmont Road. It makes sense that this naturally occurring ravine, which took millions of years to be created, is still directing the movement of groundwater through the tailings pond area. And there is other evidence of this northern pathway through the tailings pond.

Detailed topographical maps from 1902 to the 1950s, including the dam engineer’s 1936 map above, show that the natural landscape hidden beneath the million tons of contaminated material in the primary tailings pond is not a basin, but something more akin to a scoop that pours out through the low spot in the dike now filled by the dam of tailings.

Based on records from the state engineer’s office, the primary tailings pond actually slopes downhill to the north, from an elevation of 4,840 feet on the pond’s southern edge to 4,803 feet at the center of the base of the dike dam. The topography of the pond shown on the 1936 map, created by the engineers who built the dam, shows a consistent slope to the north all the way across the pond, a slope considerably more severe than what is said to be occurring to the east.

Still further evidence can be garnered by a half-century’s worth of aerial photos, which show that the water and tailings in the dam have always pushed toward the gap to the north. Even during the 1930s, when the water was first filling the pond and could have pooled in any direction based on the slope of the property, it pooled first and foremost against the dam (see aerial photo on page 18).

And yet, nowhere in the EPA, CDPHE or county health department records, has Boulder Weekly been able to locate a single document that acknowledges that the Pierre shale underlying the primary tailings pond slopes from south to north. Most times, the documents either incorrectly refer to the pond as a closed basin or, at best, say it gently slopes to the east. This omission is both inaccurate and a bit suspicious, considering that this common knowledge should have been an important element in deciding where to look for groundwater contamination on the property and, ultimately, in determining the appropriateness of using the primary pond as the equivalent of an eternal, unlined waste bin for Allied’s contamination.

This evidence speaks volumes to the negligence that has occurred over the past 70 years at Valmont Butte on the part of those contaminating the land for profit — as well as those charged with monitoring the environmental and health conditions on and surrounding the property.

For more than 30 years, millions of gallons of water carrying radioactive tailings, lead and arsenic were poured into the primary tailings pond with impunity because it was claimed to be a natural basin protected to the north by the Valmont dike. This was never true.

But even more inexplicable, after 50 years of inspections, testing and environmental examination by the city, the county, the state and the federal government, not one agency has ever questioned this false assertion in a practical manner by drilling a monitoring well below the dam and examining the possibility that radioactive water filled with lead and arsenic could be escaping the pond by leaching through the dam. There is ample evidence that this has happened in the past, and may still be occurring to some degree.

The dam itself was once cored and sampled for contamination. The sample from the dam was found to contain by far the highest level of radioactivity on the entire property. But why would a dam made from the same tailings as those it is designed to hold back be as much as 10 times more radioactive than most of the other tailings in the pond? One possible explanation is that if radioactive water from inside the primary tailings pond has been slowly migrating through the dam for the past 70 years, it could have caused the tailings in the dam to become that much more contaminated. In other words, if water were passing through, the dam would serve as a filter to the contaminated water, straining out radioactive particles and making the dam more radioactive each year.

The discussion of monitoring wells and groundwater moving through the dam will go a long way toward debunking another of the questionable assertions, the one concerning the lack of groundwater at the property.

Assertion #3: There is no groundwater on the property and, therefore, no potential for groundwater to enter or escape from the primary tailings pond.

It is not a mystery that groundwater does exist on the property, even though this claim has been floating around for nearly 30 years and was still being made by the city earlier this year, when we began this investigation. It was the EPA who first declared that no groundwater existed on the property in 1984.

This incorrect proclamation ultimately cleared the way for the tailings to be covered and left in place at the property, and there is certainly evidence to suggest that this is the outcome that everyone wanted, from the CDPHE to the EPA to the city. It was the least expensive outcome, by a long shot.

It is not an overstatement to say that everything changed in the way that state and federal agencies handled the Allied mill property following this 1984 EPA finding. The supposed complete lack of groundwater was used as the excuse by the EPA to stop all soil, water and any other types of testing at the property. Later, the state would cite the lack of groundwater as one of the main reasons it believed that it could terminate the hazardous materials license that it had previously claimed would have to remain in place as long as the tailings were stored on the property. Thanks to this 1984 “no groundwater” finding by EPA, it would be nearly 20 years before anyone would question the accuracy of this claim and prove it to be wrong.

Today, we know that there is a wetland at the east end of the property with groundwater. (It’s curious that the EPA missed that one, with all those big trees.) We know that there is pooling groundwater in the primary tailings pond, which is coming from somewhere. Monitoring wells have found groundwater in several more locations at the east end of the property as well.

What may be more important, however, is where the authorities have still failed to find groundwater: anywhere that it could be feeding into the primary tailings pond and anywhere it could be leaking out of the primary tailings pond. There’s an interesting story to both.

Anyone driving on Valmont Road can see that the gently sloping, easily accessible piece of the city’s property below the dam is the only densely forested area on the north side of Valmont Butte (see photo at right).

Boulder Weekly has taken a number of experts — from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigators to geologists to dam experts — to view the area below the dam on the city’s property. All have expressed the opinion that there is clear evidence that groundwater north of the dam is supplying sustenance to a variety of trees and plants between Valmont Road and the base of the dam, even up the side of the dam. They say the tree varieties in this location suggest that the groundwater is no more than 15 to 20 feet below the surface.

So the only real question is whether the groundwater below the dam is part of the larger aquifer that exists directly across Valmont Road to the north, or whether it is groundwater that has migrated downhill, through the dam, from the tailings pond on the other side. Or is it a combination of both?

We don’t know, because this single, most obvious potential pathway to human exposure (homes are directly across the street, within a couple of hundred feet of the dam) is the one place where neither the city nor any agency charged with investigating the contamination at the Valmont Butte mill site has ever been willing to drill a monitoring well and test for contamination.

But why? There’s obviously groundwater present.

Unfortunately, the answer seems obvious.

There is a pretty good motive not to look.

The drinking water wells for those houses directly across the street, including the one in the old photo taken before the dam was built, have been known to be contaminated with radiation and lead since 1967. The same city and agencies that won’t put in a monitoring well below the dam have known about this water-well contamination across the street for at least 45 years.

Public records show clearly that authorities believed the contamination they were finding in these water wells north of Valmont Road was most likely coming from the Allied mill operations and, more particularly, the primary tailings pond. So much so that county officials felt it necessary to create a program to test the wells every year because of their proximity to Allied’s primary tailings pond, which is less than 200 feet away from the well that had consistently showed the highest levels of historic contamination.

And while well contamination may have been first documented by the county and state in 1967, allegedly it had been known to exist for decades before then — at least by Allied Chemical. An affidavit in the CDPHE records, as well as a health report in the county files, states that General Chemical (Allied) had to drill a new well on the Keeter property, which is located directly across the street from the tailings pond dam, in the mid-1940s.

The affidavit makes the following statements:

“Around 1945, the domestic water well located ten feet from the kitchen of the house, which was built in 1890’s, was contaminated … Our parents, George and Ruth Sawhill, had the water tested and it came back positive for contamination. General Chemical was contacted, they took responsibility and agreed to dig a new well approximately 200 feet from the house. The reason for the contamination was water leaching [not leaking or flooding] from the tailings pond of the General Chemical Mill to our house well … Our concern is the integrity of the dike and the possibility of further contamination of our ground water.”

Over the years, beginning in 1967, the well tests found levels of gross alpha radiation as much as 10 times higher than today’s drinking water limit of 15 picocuries per liter (the goal contaminant level is zero).

But while radiation is a serious issue in drinking water, the most serious threat for residents using the aquifer north of the dam is the lead and arsenic that is prevalent in the Allied contamination.

The safe level for lead in drinking water is zero. (It has a maximum contaminant level of .015 parts per million.)

It is clear that the main concerns of the residents at the time of the testing and of those doing the testing was the radiation. It was rare when a test for lead was conducted. When they did look, with a proper screening limit, they found it.

Contamination in these shallow aquifer wells (18 to 20 feet deep) was found consistently until the testing suddenly stopped in 1984 — coincidentally or not — at exactly the same time the EPA declared that groundwater didn’t exist on the property across the street.

Once again, the EPA of Ronald Reagan, Anne Burford and Rita Lavelle (see Part 3 of this series) failed to find a completed pathway to human exposure because it went to seemingly bizarre lengths to not look in the most obvious places that would have allowed it to complete the pathway. The moral of the story is, if you don’t drill a monitoring well below the dam, then you get to continue to claim that there is no evidence of groundwater contamination below the dam. Unbelievably, this is still occurring today.

The city, Honeywell, the state and the EPA have still not tested the groundwater below the dam on the city’s property. EPA did drill a new monitoring well across the road, several hundred feet farther north, behind the Keeter house, in 2004. They say there was no contamination found at that time.

It seems like it would have been easier to test the old existing wells that had historically been contaminated, instead of drilling a new one, especially when you consider that the farther north in the groundwater aquifer you drill, the more diluted any lead or radiation contamination would be. EPA documents seem to indicate that the agency really wanted to have drilled the new well in the Keeters’ front yard, closer to the old originally contaminated well, but they were afraid they might hit buried utilities, so they changed their mind. Perhaps someone at Public Service was out of those little orange flags on a wire the day they worked near Valmont.

The bottom line is that it if you really want to know if your tailings pond dam is allowing lead- and arsenic-contaminated radioactive water to leach into groundwater that connects to an aquifer used for drinking wells, then just test the groundwater below the dam on your own property and prove once and for all if there is or isn’t a pathway to human exposure.

It shouldn’t be this complicated if the truth is the only goal.

Not putting a well below the dam explains how authorities can claim that there is no evidence of groundwater leaving the tailings pond. But what about the lack of groundwater feeding into the pond? That’s a very different story.

In 1982, the state and county were still hoping that the federal government would use Superfund dollars to clean up the Allied site. As a result, they submitted the site to the EPA, explaining that they believed that the aquifers on the land around the site had become contaminated, and that even the municipal wells for the City of Boulder were at risk. Pretty scary stuff.

But when the site failed to be added to the NPL for reasons already discussed, the CDPHE, realizing that there would be no federal dollars to aid with cleanup costs, changed its tune, and started searching for a cheaper solution. All the talk of contaminated wells and aquifers stopped cold.

It was just around this time in the first half of 1984 that Tom Hendricks, who was then leasing the mill for his gold operation, made a suggestion to the state. He offered to put a dirt cap on the tailings pond and asked the CDPHE if that would eliminate the need for the ongoing hazardous waste license attached to the property as a requirement for storing the radioactive material in the tailings pond. It would be an understatement to say that Hendricks’ request found receptive ears at the state. CDPHE understood that this could be its way out of the Allied mill saga. There was one problem, however: The Allied site couldn’t be approved for permanent storage of the waste, and the license couldn’t be terminated as long as the issue of potential groundwater contamination existed at the property. At this time no monitoring wells had ever been drilled at the property.

The CDPHE was apparently so cash-strapped that it couldn’t cough up the $50,000 it would take to drill and test the groundwater itself, so it turned to the EPA, which also wanted to see the Allied site off its books. The conversation went like this.

In a letter dated June 12, 1984, from Dr. Robert Arnott, assistant director Office of Health Protection at the Colorado Department of Health, and to Robert Dupree of the EPA, Arnott writes, “If you have F.I.T. [field investigative team] or other resources that could be applied to this situation in a timely manner, we may have a unique opportunity to resolve a long standing and difficult situation.”

In his letter of reply dated June 27, 1984, Dupree agreed to conduct a drill ing program so that the site could be “reevaluated to determine its suitability for long term stabilization in place.”

Everything had changed. This was the CDPHE that had previously fought with the EPA to get NPL status for the site because it believed that the contamination was too dangerous to be left in place. The same state agency that had told the EPA just two years earlier that it believed that people were being exposed to contamination from the site and that it suspected that Boulder’s municipal aquifers were being impacted by Allied contamination, was now asking for $50,000 to prove that the whole problem could be covered with dirt and left right where it was forever. Quite a turnaround. What happened next defies all logic.

On Dec. 28, 1984, the EPA’s field investigative team (FIT) visited the Allied mill site for “reconnaissance” purposes, to determine where to drill the groundwater monitoring wells that the state had requested in order to determine if the tailings could be capped and left in place. The report filed by this team after visiting the site is riddled with very incorrect assertions.

First, the report says, “During the reconnaissance, FIT observed that the tailings are placed in a closed valley. The igneous Valmont Dike bounds the tailings on the north. This rock may act as a barrier to groundwater flow.”

The report never mentions that a dam even exists.

Next, the report states, “Using this information, FIT has postulated that locally, near surface groundwater, if present, should flow eastward. … Using this interpretation of groundwater flow, FIT staked the location of four monitoring wells.”

Strike two, no mention that the pond slopes to the north.

Finally, the report says, “FIT decided that a well could not be drilled anywhere along the north side of the Valmont dike. The dike and its rubble are not easily accessible, and Valmont Drive covers the alluvium immediately below this intrusion. The sampling plan will be amended to incorporate this change.”

So there is no mention of a large dam made of tailings. And no mention of an easily accessible, relatively gently sloping patch of land on the north side of the Valmont dike that would have been simple to drill, an area that just happened to be located directly below the large dam that the “investigative” team doing important “reconnaissance” apparently didn’t see.

As for the well sites, one location was staked in the ravine above the southwest corner of the tailings pond, just below the Public Service property line. This is the same ravine described earlier in this article and shown on early maps.

Another well was located just east of the end of the primary tailings pond, and the final two wells were even farther east, towards the end of the property.

In addition to drilling the four wells and sampling groundwater, the FIT team had supposedly been instructed to sample soils on both the Allied and Public Service properties, surface water in the Public Service lakes, and even sediments in the same lakes. But then something strange happened.

On Feb. 11, 1985, the first well was drilled in the ravine above the pond. It was drilled to a depth of 45 feet and into the Pierre shale. The well appeared dry, but as is standard on monitoring wells, PVC casing — which allows groundwater in but keeps dirt out — was set and cemented into the well. But according to a report in the CDPHE records, the FIT team leader then placed a phone call to his supervisor. Following the call, the fit leader ordered the casing pulled from the well and the well to be backfilled with dirt. The cement had already set up, so the casing broke and only about eight feet were recovered. The monitoring well was then buried. More on why this was so unusual later.

The team then proceeded to the next well location, at the eastern end of the tailings pond. This well was also drilled into the Pierre shale, at 30 feet. It was declared dry and immediately back-filled with dirt. No casing was ever set.

The team leader then declared the site inspection complete. The remaining two wells were not drilled, and the other testing that had been scheduled for both properties was declared unnecessary and was never done. Both the EPA and the state seemed fine with this sudden termination of the site investigation that had just cleared the way for the CDPHE and EPA’s “long standing and difficult situation” to be taken care of once and for all.

But not everyone was pleased by this bizarre about face on the monitoring wells and other testing.

Rahe Junge, a geologist from the Colorado Geological Society (CGS) who had been working on the groundwater sampling plan for the state on the Allied site, formally protested the manner in which the two wells had been drilled and the way the site inspection had been prematurely abandoned.

The CGS had recommended a drilling plan at the Allied site that would have included 12 wells, two drilled to 100 feet and 10 drilled to 50 feet. Junge said he believed that more wells needed to be drilled and properly cased in order to truly determine the state of the groundwater on the property. He was right.

The 1985 operation was peculiar for a number of reasons. First, the first well had casing put in place. This is a relatively expensive part of the drilling operation, so making the decision to go back and tear it out later is odd, at best. The reason that monitoring wells are often cased, even when they appear to be dry, is that groundwater is not constant, moves very slowly and often takes a while to appear. For example, one of the groundwater monitoring wells that was drilled at the Allied site in 2004 was initially dry, but was cased anyway, as were all the test wells in 2004. As it turned out, it took 10 days for the groundwater to show up in this well at the Allied site. When it did show, it was contaminated.

There is no question that the EPA was aware in 1985 that groundwater could have shown up in the first well or the second well, had they been properly cased and allowed to remain for monitoring (hence the name “monitoring well”).

More disturbing still, had the 1985 FIT team continued drilling the remaining two wells it had scheduled further east, we now know today, because of more recent drilling and testing, that both of these wells would likely have found groundwater that was contaminated.

As further evidence that the first well might have filled with water if given time, two groundwater monitoring wells were drilled on the Public Service Company property in the same ravine in 2007, only a few feet above the EPA’s 1985 “dry” hole (see water well map at right). Both of these wells apparently found groundwater, one at 13 feet and the other at 64 feet. Based on the EPA’s own description of how groundwater follows surface features, the water found in these two wells should migrate right through the area of the 1985 dry hole, on its way to the primary tailings pond.

In another strange — and yet somehow expected — twist to this story, the core samples taken from the EPA’s two 1985 dry holes, which could still be reexamined today for evidence that groundwater did move through the area, have apparently gone missing.

Oops. That explains why everyone says there is no evidence that groundwater feeds into the primary tailings pond.

Assertion #4: There is no evidence of completed pathways to human exposure from contamination created by the Allied milling operation.

Considering the reporting thus far, this assertion is certainly as flawed as the others. While it’s true that much of the most dangerous potential pathways to human exposure occurred in the past while everyone involved turned a blind eye, this should not mean that those responsible for such blatant disregard for environmental laws should walk away scot-free.

In Boulder Weekly’s recent interview with Tom Hendricks — who from all indications from the public record was the most responsible operator to ever occupy the Allied mill site — he described to Boulder Weekly the conversations he would have with former employees of the Allied mill regarding Allied’s handling of its contamination.

According to Hendricks, every time the subject of the thousands of gallons a day of contaminated primary pond tailings water being pumped intentionally into the Public Service lakes for years came up, the Allied employees would just put their finger over their lips and say “Sshh.”

This wasn’t, after all, an unusual practice for the chemical giant during this timeframe. You may recall that the $13 million dollar fine Allied was hit with by the EPA in 1976 was for dumping contamination straight into the James River in Virginia and causing people downstream to get sick.

We may never be able to assess what the actual damage caused by the Allied mill operation to humans may have been. It’s nearly impossible to go back in time and analyze such damage. But what we do know is that there is no safe level for lead in drinking water and that the consequences of drinking it are devastating and last a lifetime.

What can be assessed, and should be, are the current ongoing risks at the site. If groundwater leached through the dam in the past, as even the state now seems to be willing to admit, then it could happen again. In a recent email, Warren Smith of the CDPHE said, “When the site was operating and the tailings pond was in use prior to the mid-1980s, it was likely that there were offsite impacts to groundwater, but that is not the case today.”

In the mid-1980s, the CDPHE was claiming that there was no groundwater on the site at all.

Today, we know that there is groundwater in the primary tailings pond. And whether it is coming from rain and runoff that penetrates the pond, as authorities claim, or is being fed by groundwater that is migrating into the pond, if it is there, then the potential for it to migrate through the dam still exists. A dirt and rock cap such as the one proposed by the city will not stop rain and runoff from entering the contaminated tailings below. And the weight of the cap, according to some, may well force more water to migrate from the pond. If everyone is so sure that there is no problem today, then why still refuse to drill the one monitoring well below the dam that would make it possible to know when and if contamination is leaving the pond? And if contamination is entering the groundwater below the dam, then it should be remediated by constructing a French drain or some other type of groundwater capture system as is being done at other contaminated sites across the country.

Considering the track record of those charged with protecting the public from the contamination at the city’s Allied mill Valmont Butte site, we would do well to remember that being told we are safe is sometimes the same as being told that what could endanger us is simply unknown or not even being looked for.

Consider these statements from the final 2005 EPA report on the Allied mill site now owned by the city. They actually appeared on the same page of the report.

“Although the extent to which leachate could permeate the fractured Pierre Shale and impact drinking water wells north of the site is unknown, analytical data do not indicate that this is happening at a level that poses a significant risk to human health and the environment.”

“No complete pathways were identified during this investigation.”


Previous articleFacebook Unrolls Timeline-Style Pages for Brands and Businesses
Next articleObama calls Sandra Fluke, student dissed by Rush Limbaugh