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The government laboratory that does environmental testing for the Environmental Protection Agency's regional headquarters will be relocating to a Jefferson County research park that is being evaluated as a possible Superfund site.
John Yeagley of EPA's Region Eight Central Laboratory says the agency is aware that tons of radioactive mine tailings are buried at the Jefferson II Research Center at 59th Avenue and McIntyre. After all, several cities in the northwest metro area already have expressed concern about continuing to take drinking water from canals near the research park. But Yeagley says the construction site for the EPA's as-yet unbuilt offices is far enough removed from an old tailings burial trench and a waste pond tainted with solvents to be safe.
Greg Oberley, the ERA official in charge of determining the nature and quantity of material in the dump, admits the agency can't yet say exactly what's there or how far the contamination extends. But state health-department officials say the contaminated soil probably measures in the thousands of tons.
The hazardous materials at Jefferson II resulted from research that was started in the 1960s by private companies and the CSM Research Institute, a now-inactive concern associated with the Colorado School of Mines. Similar mining research was also done at a CSM site in Golden that now is on the government's Superfund cleanup list.
Originally 56 acres when purchased by the CSMRI, the Jefferson II site has gradually been sold off to help the institute cover cleanup costs at its polluted complex in Golden, according to Bob McPherson, the school's director of environmental health and safety. That location, called Creekside because of its proximity to Clear Creek, became a Superfund site. It includes a radioactive building and a waste pond at the edge of Clear Creek from which the EPA excavated 15,000 cubic yards of dirt tainted with radioactive tailings, solvents and heavy metals. "We found a little of everything at Creekside," says the EPA's Mike Holmes, "including bottles of acid, a chlorine-gas cylinder and rare earths you don't usually see around here."
Those unusual elements--some radioactive--apparently came from ores sent since 1911 to the research institute from mining operations around the globe. Research on those materials was conducted by the institute at both sites. "CSMRI had a worldwide business and a worldwide reputation," explains Bob McPherson. Ores to be assayed or experimentally processed came from Europe, Australia, South Africa --practically any place mining was done this century, McPherson says. While the bulk of the work was devoted to finding cheaper ways to separate precious metals from ores, in later years a branch devoted to environmental study and analysis was opened at CSMRI. But that dawning of environmental awareness came too late to turn around years of polluting practices at the institute's two sites.
The Jefferson II site is known to have tailings from uranium and yttrium processing, says EPA's Greg Oberley. Besides those radioactive elements, the burial trench could contain their decay products, such as cesium and thorium. The radiation being emitted by dump contaminants could be either gamma or alpha, says Oberley. "Both are fairly serious forms of radiation," he adds. "If breathed in, alpha can be extremely dangerous."
CSMRI may not be the only party fingered for such contamination, adds Mike Holmes. Mining giants Kerr-McGee and Amax (now known as Cyprus-Amax) also operated research facilities on the property, he points out.
CSMRI itself went dormant in 1987, a victim of the rise of independent research firms and of a sour economy in the mining and energy industries. Today CSMRI's remaining four-acre complex of eight buildings on McIntyre is surrounded by a 22-acre complex owned by Cyprus-Amax, several private labs and research companies, three buildings leased by the Department of Energy as classrooms and offices, and at least six acres owned by Arvada developer Howard Lacy, president of the controversial Jefferson Center development slated for land surrounding Rocky Flats. It is Lacy land on the southern end of the research park where a Houston firm will put up a building to EPA's specifications and lease it to the agency.
"We believe the contamination is confined to a few areas, rather than widespread," says Oberley, EPA's project manager at the site. The burial trench, now covered with a paved parking lot and drive, is estimated to be ten feet deep and about 100 feet long, though the agency still has not found its end point, Oberley adds. The number of radioactive isotopes buried there also remains unknown, he says, because "the lab we hired to do the analysis screwed it up."
The cities that get their water from the canals and small reservoirs lying down-slope of Jefferson II find such delays frustrating. Arvada draws drinking water from the Farmers Highland Canal, which skirts the border of the research complex. And Westminster, Thornton and Northglenn drink from Standley Lake, which receives water from the Highland and the Croke Canal, whose route also takes it within a stone's throw of Jefferson II. "We've been monitoring the water for the past six or seven years and requesting action from the state and EPA," says Kelly DiNatale, Westminster's water resources manager. "We know there's a plume of contaminated groundwater there, but we're comfortable it hasn't gotten into our water yet." Even so, he adds, "something needs to be done."