Room to Glow

Digging up dirt on Denver.

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Or eat it.

A hundred years ago, radium was a miracle cure, a wonder drug, the turn-of-the-century equivalent of Viagra -- and Colorado was playing doctor to the world. Marie Curie herself came out West, prospecting for uranium; Denver turned into a major radium-processing center.

So major, in fact, that the city dubbed itself the "Radium Capital of the World." In 1916, at the height of the industry, an ounce of pure radium sold for as much as $120,000 -- and Denver shipped out pound after pound of the stuff, much of it going to the war effort.

But in the 1920s, Denver's radium boom went bust in the face of overseas competition, leaving nothing behind but piles of debris and dirt -- contaminated dirt. The tailings were used as fill for construction projects, including street-paving jobs throughout much of Capitol Hill. And then the origins of the fill were forgotten, the down-and-dirty history buried in time.

It wasn't until early 1979 that Denver unearthed its radioactive past. An official with the relatively new Environmental Protection Agency discovered a reference to a National Radium Institute of Denver, which had been located on land then occupied by the Robinson Brick Company. Tests determined that a significant amount of radiation was present at the Robinson site. After that, the Colorado Health Department launched an acre-by-acre search of the state, conducted both on foot and in vans. The feds initiated their own investigation, using a helicopter to find hot spots that couldn't be explained away by Colorado's already naturally high background radiation.

Then-U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder called for health studies on the effects of low-level radiation. Representative Tim Wirth announced that his House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee would begin holding hearings on abandoned radium sites -- part of a two-year effort by the House Commerce Committee to probe this country's environmental disasters.

Throughout the spring, reports emerged daily of new finds, radioactive spots across the state -- one directly below a popular Denver pancake house -- where soils were contaminated by radium, thorium and uranium. The radioactive decay of those elements produces radon gas, and "chronic exposure to radon has been shown to cause lung cancer," according to the state health department. Before other environmental tragedies -- including Love Canal and Three Mile Island -- pushed this state's radium tailings off the front page, over thirty contaminated sites had been located in Denver alone.

Many of this city's hot spots were grouped together in the single Denver Radium Site, which was added to the EPA's Superfund list in 1983. The worst of the properties rated their own ranking. Some of those sites were cleaned up long ago; today the former home of the Robinson Brick Company holds a spanking-clean Home Depot. But Denver's streets that registered three or four times hotter than average were largely left alone, since the radioactive material was bound in asphalt, buried under more asphalt, and "such contamination doesn't necessarily indicate a health hazard," state officials said at the time.

Summarizing its efforts in Denver, the EPA's Region 8 Web site now notes that cleanup approaches included "removal of contaminated soil to a permanent disposal site; installation of ventilation systems to vent radon gas; and stabilization and capping in place. Some wastes under structures and streets were left in place. Cleanup is complete at all of the properties except the Shattuck Chemical Company."

At one point, cleanup at Shattuck -- also known as Operable Unit 8 -- was considered complete, too. It took years of campaigning by neighbors, as well as a 1998 vote of Denver's residents, to convince the EPA that its original solution -- essentially putting all of the contaminated soil into a giant mound, then capping and fencing it and leaving it in the middle of the Overland neighborhood -- was a dirty deal for this city. And just last month, the company that's contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up Shattuck finally began the $10 million task of removing 150,000 tons of radioactive material once and for all, taking the waste to an approved Corps of Engineers disposal facility somewhere -- anywhere -- out of state.

The EPA designated nine segments of Denver's contaminated streets as Operable Unit 7. The city's been managing that unit -- known as Denver Radium Streets -- for close to a decade, training workers in appropriate handling and excavation procedures when work is being done in the area.

And now the heart of Capitol Hill gets its turn to come clean. Starting this week, the city will begin reconstructing 11th Avenue, block by block from Race to Josephine streets, and Marion Street, block by block between Sixth and Tenth avenues. "These streets were selected based on the need for maintenance and reconstruction," the city's Web site explains. "The City has an opportunity to reduce its costs on these two projects by taking advantage of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' transportation and disposal contracts in place for the Shattuck remediation work."

But in the flier currently being distributed to property owners and residents along the route, there's little background on the project's sorry history. "We understand this construction will be a temporary inconvenience," says the Denver Radium Streets Project advisory. "Reconstruction includes removal of contaminated asphalt/subgrade materials and disposal at a licensed disposal facility. Fencing and 24-hour security will be used during periods when contaminated materials are present. After the contaminated materials are completely removed, standard construction methods will be used to reconstruct the street."

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