Plan for development on former uranium mining site in Leeds alarms activists

Leeds • With rugged redrock cliffs, white-colored reefs and the Pine Valley Mountains looming on the horizon, a hilltop in the southern Utah town of Leeds about 15 miles from St. George has a stunning panorama.

The view will belong to Silver Pointe Estates, which is planned for the west side of the town with about 900 inhabitants and is expected to feature about 100 homes on one-acre lots — about half of which will be situated on land that was part of the Big Hill and Chief Chloride uranium mines, and the remainder on nearby Tecumseh Hill where silver mining took place during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Opponents of the proposed 148-acre development claim elevated levels of radioactive and other contaminants on or near the site could potentially lead to illness or death.

That infuriates businessman and philanthropist Gary Crocker, principal owner of Silver Reef Investment Holdings, LLC, who says naysayers are distorting the truth about his property.

So far, Crocker has spent roughly $1 million to clean up waste rock and radioactive and other contaminants on the site as part of a Voluntary Cleanup Project (VCP) agreement signed with the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR), which could pave the way for him to construct 22 homes for the first phase of the development.

“There is a group of entrenched anti-development folks out in Leeds who have used this and any other aspects of the project that they felt they could leverage as a way to delay and prevent this use of private property for its intended uses,” said Crocker, who owns a ranch in Leeds’ Silver Reef mining area.

Development planned on old uranium mine and tailings sites in the town of Leeds in southwestern Utah.

Michelle Peot, one of a 47-member group of Leeds residents opposing Silver Pointe Estates, argues otherwise.

“This is not a development issue. It’s a public health issue,” the community activist said.

Another opponent, Martha Ham, is puzzled why Crocker, who is the chairman of Nexus Spine and Merrimack Pharmaceuticals and recently donated $8.5 million to the University of Utah to help with construction of the $93.5 million Crocker Science Complex, wants to press ahead with the project.

“It is surprising that Gary Crocker, who has devoted both his career and philanthropic activities to the development of medical innovations, would be spearheading a development that could possibly put our entire community at risk for serious health problems,” she said.

Mining for development

With the advent of the Cold War and the nuclear power industry, Western Gold and Uranium Corporation began mining at the Big Hill and Chloride Chief mines during the 1950s, extracting between 20,000 and 30,000 tons of uranium, according to the EPA.

Hurricane-based 5M Inc. acquired the property in 1973 but its plan to start up a uranium and vanadium recovery operation didn’t pan out. As a result, the state took over the assessment and cleanup efforts of the mines in the 1990s, using reclamation bonds forfeited by the owner.

A 1995 report conducted for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining recommended the land be recorded with Washington County as an elevated radioactivity area due to high concentrations of radium 226 in the soil and gamma-ray exposure rates, which would preclude residential development. It further recommended remediation of the area and advised contractors working on the site to be informed of the elevated radiation and to prepare a radiation safety plan for their workers.

Two years later, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) weighed in, asking the EPA to add the land to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA — the federal law informally known as Superfund that empowers the EPA to clean up toxic waste and which requires the government recover its cleanup costs from all current and past owners of a property.

DERR’s preliminary assessment of the area found levels of arsenic, vanadium, mercury, radium 226 and uranium 238 that exceeded the Superfund Chemical Data Matrix benchmarks – all of which have been linked to aan variety of ailments, including kidney and liver damage, neurological disorders and various forms of cancer.

As a result, the EPA in 2004 gave the site “higher priority” status due to contamination levels and the proximity of nearby residences and recommended further assessment under the Superfund process.

That led to the land for Silver Pointe Estates and surrounding areas being included in the CERCLA process. Still, the contamination did not rise to the level for the land to make the National Priorities List, which could have made the site eligible for further investigation and possible remediation and made federal dollars available for the project.

In 2005, Crocker acquired the property from 5M Inc. for about $2.7 million. Two years later, to the surprise of residents who were familiar with the land’s history, Crocker entered into the agreement with DERR to clean up the land to pave the way for the first phase of Silver Pointe Estates.

Utah’s Voluntary Cleanup Program was created in 1997 to provide a streamlined cleanup process and to promote the voluntary cleanup of contaminated sites, which saves tax dollars.

Ham and Peot argue a VCP is not sufficiently rigorous to clean up a radiation site. Of the 1,750 VCP projects listed in Intermountain West states, they and other group members have failed to find one that addressed uranium or radium 226 contamination.

“We have not found any … where a developer is allowed to clean up radiation contamination,” Ham said, who calls the VCP to prepare the land for residential development “unprecedented.”

There are five uranium mill sites in Utah that have been cleaned up under federal oversight and with state involvement, but David Bird, DERR project manager who is overseeing the cleanup efforts for the first phase of Crocker’s build site, acknowledges none of them have involved VCPs.

Crocker said the contaminants listed in the state’s 1995 Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining report were found in the wider area, and not on the 148 acres he purchased and calls assertions to the contrary an effort to twist the facts.

Peot and others counter that several reports, including those submitted to the state by Silver Reef Investment Holdings’ project engineer Richard White, detail soil samples of contaminants on the acreage in excess of standards, including uranium, radium 226, mercury, arsenic, lead and vanadium.

Crocker and members of his development team say they don’t feel inclined to rebut every argument advanced by opponents, but insist they have followed all the necessary steps for approval. For instance, they point out Leeds officials signed off on their preliminary plat map of 22 lots for the first phase of the development near the Big Hill mine shaft years ago, as well as the remedial action plan they formulated with the state to remove the mine waste rock and contaminants in that area.

Silver Pointe skeptics don’t want to throw the previous mayors and council members who gave those approvals “under the bus,” but argue the town’s small size meant elected officials there neither had the staff nor the expertise to make an informed decision.

“They did the best they could with what knowledge of the project they had at the time,” said Councilwoman Danielle Stirling.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The headframe over the Big Hill shaft, which miners once used to access the uranium mine, is part of a 100-home development a prominent businessman is planning to build in Leeds on 148 acres, about half of which would be situated on land where uranium mining took place. Residents opposing the plan for Silver Pointe Estates claim elevated levels of radioactive and other contaminants on or near the site make the land unsuitable for a residential development.

Remedial Action

White, who doubles as a member of the development team in addition to his engineer duties, said the cleanup of phase one of the development that began in 2013 has been thorough. He estimates crews have excavated 15,000 cubic liters of waste rock, tailings and other mining-related materials from the Big Hill and Chloride Chief area, the bulk of which have been buried 20 feet underground in a one-acre, fenced-off repository near Tecumseh Hill.

A clay cap was then installed, he explained, to seal off the mining contaminants in the repository and riprap — rocky or boulder-like material — was layered on top to prevent any soil erosion. Moreover, a lining was put on the east side of the repository as an added precaution to prevent any water seepage.

“We wanted to make sure that if any water from precipitation did percolate and get down through [the repository] that it would not be able to go east on somebody else’s property,” White said.

As for the old headframes, which are perched atop the Big Hill and Chief Chloride shafts that miners once used to access the mines, White said those were left in place to add to the historical ambiance of the area.

The contaminants adjacent to the headframes, he explained, were buried in place with rock and gravel to prevent erosion and a ditch was constructed around them to divert any runoff that might come off the side of the hill. A fence was also placed around the Big Hill headframe for safety reasons.

White said crews evacuated piles of waste rock and contaminated soil in many areas of the phase one cleanup down to the bedrock. That left some radium hotspots in the exposed bedrock in some places, which were covered with six inches of soil. Peot and others say those hotspots should also be cleaned up, noting the natural decay of uranium and radium can lead to radon gas, the exposure to which can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer.

But DERR officials said those contaminants are naturally occurring in the soil and beyond the authority of the VCP, which is limited to cleaning up potential hazards that resulted due to mining activity. They say such naturally occurring materials like radium are ubiquitous throughout the state.

“If that was part of a clean-up, we’d be digging up every neighborhood in the state,” Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Ashley Sumner said.

That’s why DERR officials say they encourage every homeowner in Utah to test for radon, adding that it is one of the requirements incorporated into the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) the developer for Silver Pointe Estates has filed with Washington County.

In September 2021, DERR sent Crocker and his team a “no further action letter” for the phase one cleanup, which essentially indicates the agreed-upon benchmarks for the VCP have been met and clears the way for residential use subject to conditions that are outlined in the site management plan, which governs maintenance going forward.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) State environmental officials have signed off on the developers’ cleanup of the first phase for the planned Silver Pointe Estates, which essentially clears the way for the land atop former uranium mines to be used for residential homes. But the developers are awaiting approval from Leeds elected officials before commencing construction. A group of Leeds residents say the cleanup has not been thorough enough and is asking the EPA to put a halt to the project.

For starters, the plan calls for six inches of soil to be maintained over the remaining hotspots. It also requires onsite workers to be notified and protected from contaminated soil and bars groundwater on the site from being tapped for drinking, bathing or irrigation purposes. Crocker said that is not because the groundwater is contaminated but is being done “out of an abundance of caution.”

Furthermore, any of the contaminants in the bedrock and other areas that could be released during the construction of the roads and homes in phase one must be cleaned to the same standard as those that have already been remediated.

Robin Anderson, a retired EPA Superfund remedy and regulatory compliance expert whom Silver Pointe opponents have consulted about the development, is dubious about the VCP that Crocker’s team drafted in consultation with the state.

“There’s no place I can find that the EPA has any guidance in Superfund where [the agency] is OK with six inches of soil being placed over … contamination, especially in a residential development where people may reside,” she said.

Some former contaminated mining sites in Utah have been successfully reclaimed to make way for residential use. One prominent example is Daybreak, a 4,200-acre master-planned community in South Jordan that is partially built on the site of Rio Tinto Kennecott Mine’s former evaporation ponds. As part of a massive cleanup process overseen by the EPA and the state, truckloads of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals were scooped out of the ponds and buried in the Kennecott Bluewater Repository.

However, Anderson and other Silver Pointe opponents say the radioactive uranium and radium contaminants found at the Bill Hill site present a much greater risk to public health than the lead and other heavy metals excavated at the Daybreak site.

Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of Health Environment Alliance of Utah, echoed Anderson’s concerns, calling six inches soil covering on the site inadequate. She also has reservations about the VCP process in general.

“While it is good to incentivize companies to remediate, the program has some major flaws,” she said. “For example, there tends to be poor oversight of the process. In many cases, there’s also a lack of performance and environmental standards.”

Finally, the CC&Rs and the Environmental Covenant for the Silver Pointe Estates eventually shifts the responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the land onto the future Silver Pointe homeowner’s association and property owners. Tuddenham and other critics argue that is a tall order for people who lack the know-how and experience, especially when the CC&Rs are vague about the cleanup and the history of the land.

“Potential residents and the HOA that are going to inherit this problem really do need to know about the risks in a very informed way,” Tuddenham added.

State officials and Crocker insist such concerns are overblown, and stress that all the cleanup benchmarks in the VCP have been completed.

“The site currently meets the standards established in the remedial action plan based on the land use, [which is] determined by the applicant,” Sumner said. “So as long as the site management plan is followed, it will continue to meet those standards.”

A new beginning or no end in sight?

If critics scarcely know where to begin in discussing Silver Pointe’s possible problems, Crocker wonders aloud when, if ever, what he views as harassment might end. He initially envisioned the phase one cleanup process costing $100,000 and taking six months but now estimates he has spent $15 million, including the $1 million for cleanup, and the process continues to drag on after more than a decade.

As someone involved in the healthcare industry, Crocker said he would never do anything to endanger public health, which is why he insists he has complied with all regulations and safety standards. He said the state’s oversight of the cleanup has been rigorous and meticulous. He further notes others have built homes next to mine shafts in Silver Reef without cleaning up the land and questions why he is being villainized for going the extra mile to do the right thing.

“It’s … a no good deed goes unpunished sort of thing that is kind of ironic,” he lamented.

Crocker hopes to begin construction soon. He argues the no further action letter he received from DERR for phase one entitles him to begin construction on the first lots. He is eager to proceed with adding homes to phase one of the project and to begin the voluntary cleanup process for phase two for the 50 additional homes planned for Tucumseh Hill.

Here, too, there is considerable disagreement. Some Leeds residents argue the developer must finish the environmental cleanup on both phases and receive a Certificate of Completion from DERR before he can begin construction on Silver Pointe Estates. And negotiations are still ongoing with the Leeds Domestic Water Users Association to supply water for the development.

Crocker argues otherwise but is awaiting final approval from Leeds Mayor Bill Hoster before commencing construction. Hoster did not respond to requests for comment about where he stands on Silver Pointe.

Whenever he is allowed to proceed, Crocker is optimistic Silver Pointe Estates will eventually win over the critics.

“It will be a nice addition to Leeds once it happens,” he said. “I think people will actually be happy.”

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

Justin Scaccy

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