Whose responsibility is it to notify prospective homebuyers when there is radioactive uranium mill tailings on a property?
Erin Toll, director of Colorado's Division of Real Estate, said it's the responsibility of real estate agents.
The Division of Real Estate is the licensing, regulation and enforcement agency for the real estate industry in Colorado.
Mill tailings are "absolutely an adverse material fact that brokers would be required to disclose if they knew about it," Toll said.
And if they don't know they should, Toll said.
"Most brokers are aware of environmental impacts of the region they serve, even without the training," that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is currently conducting, Toll said.
Grand Junction once had the dubious distinction of being known as the "most radioactive town in America." During the 1950s and 1960s, local contractors and homeowners would load trucks of the sandy-like tailings left over from the former Climax uranium mill site near the Colorado River and use it for back fill and for mixing cement. At the time it wasn't widely known, locally anyway, that the waste product was highly radioactive.
The tailings were used in foundations of homes, sidewalks, patios, streets, schools and commercial buildings.
State and federal remediation programs removed or mitigated many of the radioactive tailings from 1972 to 1998. It was a voluntary program and some owners refused to allow the government to clean up their property. Out of 8,000 known tailings properties in Mesa County approximately 5,000 were cleaned up, said Paul Oliver last year before he retired from the state health department.
Homes that were cleaned up under the first program, the Grand Junction Remediation Action Program, were not remediated to the same standards of the clean-up that came later, the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Program.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to educate real estate agents and the general public about the issue to reduce the number of people who are surprised to learn after an acquisition, that there are mill tailings on their properties.
The Grand Junction office, 222 S. Sixth St., keeps reports on the mill tailings history of surveyed properties - including whether there were ever tailings, if those tailings were cleaned up, and to what degree the property was remediated.
Mike Cosby, a health department environmental protection specialist, and Kate Elsberry, program assistant, are trying to encourage more real estate agents to access the information and divulge it to their clients.
Unfortunately, they say, out of about 575 real estate agents, only a few order mill tailings reports on their listings.
The information is free and available to anyone. For a 25 cent copying fee, Elsberry will provide a hard copy of the report.
The office experienced a small spike in interest after it sent out an October newsletter about the remaining tailings to the Board of Realtors.
Gamma rays are emitted during the decay process of uranium mill tailings. Radon gas is also created by the tailings. Radon inhalation is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Even if a property went through the (clean-up) program, it doesn't guarantee the property is completely clean," Cosby said.
There were separate remediation programs, each with its own set of standards.
"So a property cleaned up in the 1970s, or '80s might not meet today's standards," said Phil Egidi, another health department environmental protection specialist.
"Those programs dealt with the house and up to 10 feet around it," Cosby said. If there were tailings in other areas of the property, they were likely left in place, he said.
Some people are surprised to discover mill tailings on their property when seeking a building permit to add an addition or build a garage. A survey is required to avoid new construction on top of mill tailings.
It becomes a financial burden if they want to add on or sell the property, Cosby said.
Colorado is no longer authorized or funded to assist people with the cost of removing mill tailings from their property.
A Grand Junction woman recently learned there are mill tailings in the foundation underneath the family room in her home. A carport had been enclosed and converted into the family room.
She only learned of the tailings existence when she happened to be checking her property on the County Assessor's website. The family lived in Grand Junction for a year between 1997 and 1998, and returned in 2000. She said she was unaware of Grand Junction's tailings legacy.
The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous because she's contemplating legal action, is furious with her real estate agent and a local real estate company for not disclosing the information before they purchased the property four years ago.
She's been told by the health department that the radon level in her family room greatly exceeds what's considered safe.
"How can these people sleep at night consciously knowing that they have sold houses to families with kids and having them exposed to excess radiation and not making their clients aware of it," the woman said.
The family has since moved out of the half of the house where the contamination is located.
"What can we do?" the homeowner asked. "We can't walk away from it and lose our life savings. We can't sell it in good conscience. We have to refinance to pay for (removing the tailings from the foundation.)"
Tailings removal can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the state no longer funds those programs. However, Colorado will pay for disposal of the tailings. A tailings management plan on the state health department website, www.cdphe.state.co.us, explains how to safely remove tailings from a property.
The process is considered safe because it is a short-term exposure, and people are told to suppress the dust created, Egidi said.
Radioactive waste's health risks depends on where it's located. A small amount of tailings in the backyard is not as risky as when it's been used in a home's foundation, said Jeff Deckler, CDPHE remedial program manager in Denver.
"We wouldn't have had a program costing over $700 million just in Colorado if there wasn't a risk," Deckler said.
Radiation exposure doesn't make everyone ill.
"Some can live around it and not be affected," Cosby said. "But it's a roll of the dice."
"We're here strictly to give information about a property," Elsberry said.
Once people obtain the information they can make their own informed decisions, Cosby said.
They want real estate agents to disclose that information so people can be informed consumers.
Several real estate companies were contacted by the Free Press and asked if they pull the reports on their listings. Most said they obtain reports on older properties but not on houses built after 1980 - even though tailings have turned up in the yards of brand new subdivisions.
Faith Hill, co-owner of Hill and Homes, said her company does not order tailings reports.
"The purchaser can go and order it but it's not our responsibility to do that," Hill said. "The seller has to disclose it, not the agent. The agent is not responsible for any material defects in the property."
Not according to Toll, director of the state agency that regulates the real estate industry.
"There's definitely a duty to disclose," Toll said.
And in a city like Grand Junction where the health department is making a concerted effort to educate real estate agents, ignorance of the issue is no excuse for not telling clients that the presence of mill tailings are a possibility, Toll said.
In fact, "we'd be more likely to take an action," Toll said. "We'd open up an investigation against a real estate agent and bring him or her before the Colorado Real Estate Commission. Penalties could range from public censure to suspension of license to revocation of license."
The State health department in conjunction with the Mesa County Health Department and the Colorado Cooperative Extension Service, will be offering a credited class for Realtors and agents regarding the mill tailings issue, as well as other potential hazards associated with properties sometime early next year. The date has not yet been set. Those interested in attending can contact Anna Rice, indoor air quality program coordinator for the Mesa County Health Department, 683-6647.
Rice said seminars on radon will be offered to the general public as well.
Reach Sharon Sullivan at email@example.com.