Is land on ex-uranium mines in Leeds suitable for housing development? Opinions differ

One environmental program manager argues that voluntary clean-ups under government supervision meet the same strict standards as those conducted by the federal government.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The headframe above the Big Hill shaft, which miners once used to access the uranium mine, is part of a 100-house development that a prominent Leeds businessman built on 148 acres (approx half) of these would be located on land where uranium is mined. Residents opposed to the Silver Pointe Estates plan allege that the elevated levels of radioactive and other pollutants on or near the site make the land unsuitable for residential development.

Leeds • Can land on former uranium mines in Leeds’ historic Silver Reef area ever be clean enough to be suitable for residential development?

Gary Crocker, the majority owner of Silver Reef Investment Holdings, insists it can be done. In fact, he bets on it. He has spent $15 million to advance his plan to build 100 homes on 148 acres of land, part of which would be on land that was part of the Big Hill and Chief Chloride uranium mines.

To date, he has spent about $1 million of that cleaning up overburden rock and radioactive contaminants on the property under a Voluntary Cleanup Project (VCP) agreement signed with the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) paving the way for the construction of 22 homes for the first phase of Silver Pointe Estates.

Critics of the VCP process doubt that the developers will do a thorough job in removing pollutants, especially when it comes to radioactivity. But Bill Rees, environmental program manager for DERR’s VCP & Brownsfields division, argues that voluntary clean-ups under state oversight meet the same strict standards as those conducted by the federal government.

“It’s in the best interest that the program … saves taxpayers’ money so that one party volunteers to help clean up.” [the land] compared to the government having to pay for the cleanup and then trying to cover the cost on the other side,” Rees said.

Under the VCP, state environmental officials state that they work with developers or others participating in the program and ensure their efforts to clean up contaminated land are thorough and meet agreed standards.

Rees said since 1997, 126 applications have been submitted by people wanting to participate in the program and estimates that DERR is currently overseeing more than 50 VCP projects.

However, opponents of Crocker’s project say they have examined 1,750 VCPs in states in the intermountain area and attest that they have found none dealing with uranium or radium-226 contamination, particularly on properties where residential buildings are being built should be.

Robin Anderson, a retired EPA Superfund expert and regulatory compliance expert who has consulted with opponents of Crocker’s development, said the reality is VCP cleans aren’t being scrutinized as closely and don’t meet the same standards as those that would be conducted at Superfunds sites overseen by the Crocker Development Environmental Protection Agency.

“They may say they care about the community around them and they can do a good job in the volunteer program, but that doesn’t mean it meets Superfund standards,” Anderson said, noting that it’s in the volunteer program does not require the state to comply with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA – the federal law that created Superfund sites.

Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of the Health Environment Alliance of Utah, has also consulted with opponents of Silver Pointe Estates. She said government oversight of VCPs may be lacking, adding that phase one of Crocker’s project was “not well addressed.”

“The prospective buyers, residents and homeowners’ association who are going to inherit this problem really need to be very knowledgeable about the risks,” she said.

Another issue is trust – or more specifically, the lack of trust in government.

Silver Pointe skeptics say people in southwestern Utah are familiar with “downwinders,” the term for people exposed to fallout from nuclear weapons testing, particularly in light of the tests conducted at the Nevada test site from 1951 to 1992.

Ralph Rohr, a retired surgical pathologist living in Leeds, notes that the United States Atomic Energy Commission’s failure to warn Utahns of the dangers of atomic bomb testing has resulted in many people exposed to the fallout got sick and died.

“People here in southern Utah … are trusting and patriotic and confident that their government would not lie to them,” Rohr said. “But they found they were being lied to, and many of them paid with their lives or their health.”

Rohr and other opponents are eager to avoid a repeat with Silver Pointe Estates.

Tuddenham echoes Rohr’s concern, saying Southwest Utah is at the forefront of exposure to high levels of radioactivity — not just from nuclear testing, but also from uranium mining.

“There are many indigenous tribes that have studied the history of uranium mining and contamination, and there are many abandoned mines in the area,” she said. “And we never really delved into that story. So we have to be careful going forward.”

Two years ago, DERR submitted a “no further action” letter to Crocker and his development team, essentially stating that the cleanup benchmarks for phase one of his project were met. Still, Crocker is awaiting City Council approval before beginning construction.

If that approval comes, Rohr worries about the consequences.

“In the United States, no uranium contaminated cleanup site has ever been approved for a new housing development,” he said. “Silver Pointe would be first and would set a dangerous precedent.”

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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