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County finds use for heavy metal

Lynn Burton

Garfield County Administrator Ed Green is proposing what could become an environmental win-win solution to a severe groundwater problem west of Rifle.The components are:-Union Carbide’s uranium mill site west of Rifle that has long since closed.-A naturally occurring heavy metal called vanadium, left behind and contaminating an aquifer.-The Garfield County Airport expansion project, slated to start in 2004.Green has proposed the county and the U.S. Department of Energy look into whether the vanadium can be excavated and moved from its current location at the former mill site to be used as fill material in the airport expansion project.”We’re looking at it very closely,” Green said. “But we don’t want to shift the problem to a different area.”Green said DOE will hold public hearings in August or September to consider the vanadium problem, and issues related to eight other subsurface contaminants, such as arsenic, that remain on the 140-acre former mill site west of Rifle along Highway 6 & 24.Green said DOE’s cleanup project addressed surface contamination and sub-surface contamination.”The surface contamination has been dealt with, and the DOE got a clean bill of health,” Green said.The problems that remain are below the surface. The nine contaminants are polluting the aquifer so severely, DOE paid $2.8 million to extend a water line from Rifle to serve the one-square-mile area where the aquifer is located.Green said eight of the contaminants will naturally flush from the aquifer within 100 years, a time period that meets federal regulations. The vanadium won’t flush for 300 years, and that doesn’t meet federal regulations. Green said the DOE has looked at two methods of dealing with the vanadium-contaminated soils, contained in a 25,000-square-foot area in the center of the former mill site.Green said one method is not proven, and the DOE thinks it might also be cost-prohibitive. The other method is not adequate for the aquifer’s size and the volume of vanadium.A third alternative, Green said, is for the federal government to alter environmental regulations, and for the DOE to do nothing.”We don’t agree with that,” Green said.The county presented a fourth alternative earlier this week, when Green suggested the vanadium-contaminated soils be used as fill material at the airport. The county will name a firm to conduct an environmental assessment on the airport project later this month. Whether to use vanadium will be part of its focus.Green said vanadium is already polluting the aquifer at the mill site. Whether the vanadium could contaminate groundwater in the airport area is the key question.The vanadium’s total volume is about 186,000 cubic yards, according to a DOE report.Green said if the vanadium is used, it will make up about 20 percent of the total fill needed. He doesn’t yet know how much money the county can save by using the vanadium, but Garfield County’s total tab on the $16 million project is about $750,000. The federal government and state will pay the remainder.


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