Room to Glow
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."
And what, exactly, are the materials contaminated with? Those details are left to the city's Web site, www.denvergov.org, although Parsons, the engineering-and-construction company that has the city contract, is also manning a construction hotline. "Our plans are simply to remove the street and repave it, per city specifications, trying to be as careful as we can to control dust," explains Parsons construction manager Tom Wood. "The radium is contained within the asphalt, so as it stands right now as a paved street, it's very difficult to come in contact with." And as soon as it's exposed in construction, Parsons workers will remove it to "specially constructed bags" that will then go directly to that same Shattuck disposal site.
So no harm, no foul for the Capitol Hill residents who will have a front-row seat to history being made -- and unmade.
Pardon our dust.
When members of mayor-elect John Hickenlooper's transition committees begin interviewing city employees about how their departments work (or don't), they'll be received with open arms -- and mouths -- at the Office of Television and Internet Services. Because just last Thursday, OTIS workers received this e-mailed message from director Byron West:
The memo I sent to all of you dated June 9, 2003 regarding the transition of newly elected officials needs clarification so that you understand that in no way are you prohibited from sharing with the transition team your views at any time, when asked. In addition, on your own time, if you wish, you may submit ideas to the Mayor elect's transition team.
My email was meant to remind you that OTIS resources that support transition tasks associated with the incoming newly elected officials needs to be coordinated by the management of OTIS. If my email conveyed anything different please disregard it and consider that the email of June 9, 2003 is rescinded and this communication has taken its place.
And which words in West's June 9 memo might have been misunderstood? Perhaps these: All staff contacts with any elected officials or their staffs must be coordinated through my office. This is very important work, and there are no exceptions to this process. Or these: Any questions, concerns or ideas you may have regarding OTIS or that are shared with you must first be brought to my attention so that I can coordinate the resources of OTIS and respond as effectively as possible.
But there was no misunderstanding the communiqué that OTIS's director received from Wellington Webb's office after West's earlier e-mail was reproduced in its entirety here ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Even Open Your Mouth," June 19). Denver's mayor (for almost four more weeks) has ensured Hickenlooper's transition team that it will have access to all the information its needs, "including information necessary to evaluate the management of various agencies. Employees need to be free to provide their views at any time when asked..."
Particularly their views about an agency whose avowed goals (as seen on www.denvergov.org) include enhancing "access to the processes of government, and government officers," as well as encouraging "interaction and dialogue between citizens and city officials." Remember, Big Brother's watching.
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