Denver Radium

1979, Denver, Colorado

From: The Interpretation of Radium; Being the Substance of Six Free Popular Experimental Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow, 1908, by Frederick Soddy, M.A., 1909:

The first effects of most new things are old. Motor-cars and railways do the old work of horses. In commercial life a really new effect is generally valueless until it has ceased to be new, as many inventors know to their cost. In scientific discovery a new effect does not usually proclaim itself from the housetops. It often needs new instruments and the way must first be paved for its discovery, while old effects are generally recognised first…

… On the other hand, if radioactive substances exhibit any entirely new kind of properties — and it is quite possible that they do — it is very likely that their very novelty would delay their discovery.

Radium Found

February was the month that made him glad he had left HQ and the East for the desert. Working at EPA’s Las Vegas research center wasn’t as exciting as being in Washington, but the weather was better, at least half the year, and here he could afford a nice house. He had never been much for the politics and intrigues of HQ, and here he could conduct his research uninterrupted. If he needed to talk to anyone around the country, he just got on the phone and called.

Now he thought he’d call Denver. Yesterday he’d found a reference that bothered him, and he wanted to follow up on it. He called the Region 8 Radiation Division and asked for the senior health physicist.

“Steve here, can I help you?”

“Hello, this is Tom at the EPA Research Lab in Las Vegas. I’m researching the ownership of various uranium operations and I’ve found a reference that I’d like to get clarified. Do you know of a National Radium Institute in Denver?”

Steve thought a minute, “That’s a new one to me. Any more info on it?”

“Just an address, and a report that they produced over 8 grams of radium by the start of WWI.”

“Hold on just a minute and I’ll see if anybody else has heard of this place.” Steve checked with the others in the Division, and returned with a negative response. “If you want, I can call over to the state, they may know something. Are you sure about the amount? That’s a whole lot of radioactive material, and I find it hard to believe that a site of that magnitude wouldn’t be well known.”

“Yeah, the reference seems pretty good, it documents ownership by the Bureau of Mines and shows expenditures accrued to generate that much material. By the way, the address is 500 South Santa Fe in Denver. Call me back either way, will you? Goodbye, and thanks for your help.”

Steve sat briefly, thinking. That address was not out in the boonies somewhere but within urban Denver, not far from downtown. Surely, you couldn’t have an unknown radioactive site right in the middle of town.

He called the state, and Harry was equally mystified. They agreed to meet at that address after lunch. He felt a vague sense of unease. That area had seen many uses over the last 60 years. How many people could have been exposed to radioactive materials in that time period?

Suddenly he wasn’t hungry, and wished he hadn’t agreed to wait until after lunch.

Most times the old man was up shortly after sunrise to take advantage of the sunshine. Lately, however, he’d taken to sleeping later, in spite of the cold, and running the inherent risk of his fire being detected by any Bulls that happened onto him.

He felt a little safer here, though. The building was on the back side of the property against the railroad tracks, and wasn’t worth a thing. But inside, he’d found a nice little room, more of a large niche, made out of concrete. He could tuck himself and his gear inside, make a small fire without much smoke and be relatively warm and smug. And free. No relying on those Sisters for handouts, or having to listen to a preacher man or social worker out to lock him up.

He’d been using this place since last fall, though others had used it before. He followed the rules and the Bulls left him alone. No fires that could burn the place down, no drugs or women, keep quiet and out of the way, and mostly they let you be.

Time to be going though, or he’d miss lunch over at the mission. That was the meal to get. They couldn’t keep you there — like they tried to do at night. And the food was better than at breakfast, with its warm gruel and soggy toast. He rolled up his gear, checked for any stray observers, took a leak out the door, and shambled over to the railroad tracks to make his way north.

Steve and Harry met with the plant foreman. He was a little skeptical.

“So, as I understand it, this isn’t official or an inspection or anything?” he asked.

Steve rushed to reassure him, “Not at all. What we’re doing is checking to see if there’s any elevated radioactivity in this area, from past use of the site.”

The foreman laughed, “Sure there’s elevated radiation. This is a brick plant. You know what that means? This whole site is covered with clays and busted bricks from our processing and handling, and it’s all two or three times higher than background.”

“Sure,” said Harry, “we understand that, but we’re concerned about higher levels than that. Do you measure the radioactivity of your products?”

“No, not the products. But at the mine, each batch of clay is measured to make sure it’s okay.”

“Will you let us just walk around and check the area with our instruments?” asked Steve.

“If it won’t take too long … I’ll go with you.”

Harry and Steve got their respective scintillometers out of the car. The instrument, commonly referred to as a Geiger counter, measures gamma radiation, and operates either silently or audibly, giving off a distinctive clicking to reflect the intensity of the radiation.

Near the cars in the parking lot, the clicks were discrete and intermittent on the lowest scale. “That’s background.” Steve explained to the foreman. As they crossed onto the property, the clicks doubled in intensity. “That’s probably your clay.”

They transected the property at several points with only normal fluctuations in the readings. “Where are the old buildings you mentioned?” Harry asked the foreman.

“Back there. We don’t use them at all, and they were here when we took over the property in the ’50’s. There was another building over there, but we tore it down to put up the grinding plant.” He led them to the grinding plant.

The clicks got faster, and by the time they reached the plant, had easily doubled the elevated background of the clay. Harry gave Steve a serious look, and led them toward the smallest of the two ramshackle structures. The intensity of the clicks kept increasing.

“Scale up,” suggested Harry to Steve, and explained to the nervous foreman, “We’re switching to a scale ten times higher than the one we were using. This is the scale we normally use in radioactive areas, like tailings piles. You don’t need to be alarmed.” The clicking lessened to about where it had been in the parking lot, and the foreman seemed to relax a little.

At the entrance to the small building, Steve pushed the door open with some effort, and stopped to let fresh air enter the building. “Radiation can decay into radon gas in an enclosed space,” he explained. “We’ll let it air out while we check the other building.”

The second structure looked like a handling or process area, and was in pretty poor shape. “No worry about radon gas buildup here,” joked Harry, peering through a large hole in the wall. His instrument began to click very quickly, approaching a buzz.

Harry stepped back quickly, and flashed a worried look at Steve, “Scale up.”

At 100 times the original scale the clicking was less frightening, but that didn’t change the readings. “This place is pretty hot.”

Gingerly, Steve pushed through the doorway, stepping around a wet spot just outside the door. The clicking increased inside. The structure was divided into a large work area, with a small balcony, and a room off to one side. As he approached the small room, the sound from Steve’s scintillometer increased in intensity again.

He peered around the corner into the room. “Harry, what’s this?” he asked.

As Harry joined him, the noise was too much, “Shut off the audible.”

The silence was eerie. Dust drifted through a shaft of sunlight piercing the room. One wall was made of concrete, and built into it was a shelf, or recess that reminded Steve of the recess created by his son’s bunkbeds. The comparison was enhanced when he noticed the ashes at one end.

“Someone’s been sleeping here,” he said, pointing to the traces in the dust.

Harry’s voice held a note of panic, “Look at the reading.”

Steve glanced down, and shook his instrument. It was off the scale. “Let’s get out of here,” he said calmly.

When they got outside, neither of them said anything. The foreman couldn’t restrain himself, “What does that mean? What do we do now?”

“Now,” answered Steve, remembering his worries of the morning, “we panic.”

Radium Problem?

From: Radium and Other Radioactive Substances; Polonium, Actinium, and Thorium, with a Consideration of Phosphorescent and Fluorescent Substances, the Properties and Applications of Selenium and the Treatment of Disease by the Ultra-Violet Light by William J. Hammer, 1903:

Someone has remarked that for years we have been extracting uranium oxides, and pouring down the waste pipes, and into the dust bins the more interesting and precious radioactive substances.

He had to speak forcefully over the noise of the helicopter, “Twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five, Mark!”

“Evans and the South Platte,” reported the pilot around an enormous wad of chewing gum.

Harry repeated the reading and location as he recorded them on the map.

Steve continued, “Twenty-five, twenty-five, thirty, Mark!” He carefully watched the instrument dial as they slowly coasted above Denver at a height of 500 feet. Glancing sideways out the window, he stretched his neck and shoulders, then focused again on the readings, “Thirty five, Mark! Forty, Mark! Fifty-five, Mark! Slow down Mark, we’ve got another one.”

“Roger, Steve; holding at Evans and Lipan. Anybody want coffee?”

“Mark, what’s our visual?” asked Harry who couldn’t see out a window.

“Large brick building to the south about one block, radio tower one-quarter mile to the northwest. Anybody want coffee?”

Steve remarked, “It’s too far from the tower. I put my money on the building to the south; it’s the right vintage and along the railroad. Didn’t we get a slight hit when we crossed on the south side?”

“Yeah we did, but don’t forget the landfills beneath Ruby Hill Park,” responded Harry, “I still put money on finding something there.”

“I’ll bet a cup of coffee on that!” said the pilot enthusiastically. Steve and Harry continued to murmur over the map, as they had been doing for the past week. Mark got out another stick of gum.

Mark was on loan to the DOE from the Army at Fort Carson, and so far he was getting lots of flying time. All he had to do was fly in straight lines in a grid 500 feet above Denver, but man, it was boring. These guys hardly talked, and weren’t interested in coffee breaks. With that sensor hanging down beneath the landing skids, they had, so far, located every radio tower in south Denver, and three hospitals. Amazing how much radiation there was around.

“Okay, let’s move west again, about half speed, please,” Steve instructed Mark as he watched the readings increase, then drop off as they climbed the hill out of the Platte River floodplain. Moving west they caught the edge of the radio tower’s radioactive aura.

Steve had been right in his worst dreams about the radioactive sites. When he had called Tom back to report on the visit to the old National Radium Institute site, there was worse news. Tom had given him a list of four other locations, thought to be associated with radium processing. All had checked out.

One had been an old warehouse on Twelfth Street; and they had known about the plant that still processed minor amounts of radioactive minerals. Two were complete surprises, both located in the basements of downtown multi-story buildings. They had felt pretty silly walking into these office buildings, using their earphones with the scintillometers, and trying to be subtle about what they were doing. Harry had been great. What he lacked in finesse or intellect, he made up in a genuine ability to talk to people, without saying too much.

If he thought that he and Harry had been stunned by what they found, Steve was not prepared for the response they got from their superiors. They had actually had to drag Harry’s boss out to the original site to convince him they weren’t crazy. Since then, however, he could hardly keep up with the activity. There had been unending meetings, with everyone from the Governor to the EPA Regional Administrator to the Director of DOE operations at Rocky Flats.

Their flurry of activity had not gone unnoticed, and pretty quickly the press had winded the story. Luckily, by then a rough sort of strategy had been formulated, and they had appeared somewhat under control. Each organization had seen the possibilities for a positive media image, so funding and staffing had become secondary issues. The headlines screamed about radioactive nightmares, and somehow the risks were magnified.

While beneficial from the agencies’ viewpoint, and giving the media something to obsess over, Steve worried about how the information was being misused. The workers at the brick plant went on strike when the news broke, and both the state and EPA were besieged with calls from homeowners worried about radioactive bricks in their homes. Businesses in the two downtown buildings suffered, and tenants threatened lawsuits against the building owners, demanding to be relocated.

Worse yet, the loonies were coming out of the woodwork. Denver police had arrested a man for selling aluminum foil hats to protect people from radiation sickness. Anti-nuke groups were staging sit-ins at the capitol to force the closure of the Rocky Flats Weapons Plant — citing the radium sites as examples of the government’s irresponsibility in handling radioactive materials.

They returned to the east two blocks north of Evans, following Jewell. This time the radio tower’s impact was significant. Just past the tower, as they dropped down into the floodplain, the readings showed a slight blip in their decreasing trend.

“Hold it, Mark,” ordered Steve, “Lets go back towards the tower, very slowly.”

“What do you have?” asked Harry.

“The readings didn’t drop off the way they should when we passed the tower and came over the park.” He replied, “Do you think a change in elevation could cause the decrease?”

“Mark,” asked Harry, “can you drop down lower over the park?”

Mark thought carefully, “Well, our orders only allow us to go down to 500 feet. But since this is a park and there are no obstructions, I’d be willing to do it for a cup of coffee.”

“Great, we could probably take a break without endangering the public too much. Now let’s drop slowly at the top of the hill, nearer the tower and see if that effects the readings.” When no change was noted, Harry went on. “Now do the same thing where we got the blip.”

Mark complied, and Steve became excited. “That’s it, Harry! You got your hot spot right in the middle of the park.” He gave Harry the coordinates.

As Harry marked them on the map, he asked Mark, “So, don’t I win my bet? We found a hot spot in the park. I guess this offsets my debt to you, so we’re even.” He chuckled, “Let’s keep going east.”

Mark groaned as he turned the chopper around, and opened another stick of gum.

A month later, it seemed Steve was moving in a daze where everything seemed familiar, but very different. This time, he and Harry were driving — their van equipped with a directional scintillometer. It reminded him of the early science fiction films, with the small rotating disc on top of the van.

“Let’s quarter the area north and south of Evans,” directed Harry as they crossed the South Platte River. “This is where we found the blip in Ruby Hill Park, and got those suspicious readings south of Evans.”

“And if I remember right,” laughed Steve, “you nearly killed that poor pilot by winning a cup of coffee back from him.”

Harry grinned as they turned south two blocks from where they previously had gotten the readings. Their protocol was to drive a grid extending around any hot spots they had identified or suspected. This enabled them to establish a local background reading, and make sure they didn’t miss some kind of extended deposit. It helped to separate the distant effects of a concentrated hot spot from the effects of a larger lower intensity area.

By now they were adept at quick interpretation of their readings. “Looks like it’s concentrated on the property with the brick building,” remarked Steve. “Do you mind a bit of trespassing?” he asked rhetorically as he quietly swerved past a No Trespassing sign at the back gate. “No one’s around, so we might as well get some on-site data.”

He drove through the large property, past several buildings without attracting any attention. Harry quickly recorded the data they collected on an enlarged map of the area. He had become used to writing on the run. “It looks to be mostly outside the buildings, and not too high, considering some of the sites we’ve hit. Of course we’ll have to check inside to make sure those brick walls aren’t blocking readings from radiation inside.”

“I’m afraid we’ll get to,” Steve responded. It seemed that they were having to do everything on this crazy project. “Let’s go check out the park.”

First they transected the park on the roadways, and isolated a small hot spot out in a large grassy area. Harry directed him to drive to the maintenance building then got out and went inside. When he returned he was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“I asked the maintenance guy if we could drive on the grass over around our hot spot,” he reported. “He says we can do it as long as we’re working, and don’t do any donuts on the grass. In other words, we can’t have any fun,” he laughed. “It’s the sled run, where all the kids use their snow sleds. He says the grass is in pretty bad shape, so we can’t do much damage.”

“Well, I’m not having any fun,” lied Steve as he drove over the curb.

They circled the area several times. “Boy, this spot is really small,” said Harry. “We were lucky to find it at all. Let’s try your scintillometer.”

Steve stopped and got out with his instrument. After several minutes, he defined an area about five feet square.” That’s it. Maybe we ought to blow this one off,” he suggested.

“Nah,” replied Harry from the van, “let’s get these things cleaned up once and for all. How much trouble can such a small spot be?”

“How much fun can it be?” Steve thought to himself.

Two weeks later he and Harry were having even less fun. They had been together now for months, and the pressure from both the agencies and the public was getting intense. They wanted “Action, not study!” so finally the EPA Emergency Response group had come in to perform some removals of the worst problems that couldn’t be avoided. But mostly there wasn’t enough money to solve the problems, and there was no one to blame except the regulators. Several of the identified sites had been abandoned, and some of the property owners were considering bankruptcy.

“These readings were really difficult to interpret,” explained Harry, “I’m guessing either building materials in all the buildings, or possibly something related to utilities, like backfill around water lines.”

Steve looked over at the map Harry was holding. Elevated readings followed several blocks of several major thoroughfares and adjacent areas, mostly in the vicinity of Cheeseman Park. “Let’s start at Lafayette Street, near the Denver Country Club.” he suggested.

As they drove up Lafayette, the readings remained stable, elevated, but not alarmingly so. They continued to drive the area, crossing and recrossing their path without identifying any discernable source. The same results came from trying on the other side of the park, where equally anomalous readings were recorded in the fly overs.

“Stop the van,” grumbled Harry, as he reached into the back for his scintillometer. “I’m tired of driving around and looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

He walked away from the van, then stopped sharply, intently watching the readout on his instrument. “Well, I’ll be damned.” Steve had never heard him curse.

Harry now proceeded to walk in apparently random directions, crossing and recrossing the street, heedless of the intermittent traffic. Steve tried to catch up to him, but was nearly hit by a group of teenagers speeding by in a low-rider. He quickly returned to the van, removed the key and locked the doors. Honking from down the street quickened his pace.

He was just in time to pull Harry out from in front of a bus that appeared unwilling to stop for another crazy pedestrian. “What is it? Are you crazy?” he shouted at Harry.

Harry laughed. “Hot asphalt!” he laughed again, “Help me get that manhole cover off,” and he bent over again in the middle of the street.

Steve glanced nervously at the traffic and helped him slide the lid off of the manhole. Harry knelt next to the open hole, and thrust his scintillometer inside. On audible, the instrument clicked loudly and rapidly as Harry advanced it into the hole. Then, as it went deeper to Harry’s elbow, the clicking dropped off.

Harry repeated the exercise, watching for Steve’s reaction. It took one more repetition until the look on his face convinced Harry that Steve got it. “The street is hot.” he said unnecessarily, “Hot asphalt, blocks and blocks of radioactive streets.”

“Shit,” said Steve wincing as another bus roared by blaring his horn, “are we having fun, yet?”

Harry grinned, “Oh, yeah.”

Just Do It

The phone rang. “Steve here,” he answered.

“It’s Harry. Enjoying your day off?” he chuckled. Since the Radium Sites had been discovered, everyone at the state and EPA radiation programs had been swamped, and spending most of their time in the field. Occasionally they got a day in the office, a “day off”, to catch up on paperwork and answer the phone. It was usually irate property owners, worried citizens, or crazies.

“Oh yeah,” sighed Steve, “You’ll like this one. A lady calls this morning, claims she was given ‘radium water’ by her doctor for arthritis. She’s been reading the papers, got concerned, and wants to know what to do with it.”

“Great! So, what did you tell her?”

“First, I suggested she take it back to her doctor. Seems he disappeared about 1955. I had her bring it up here. The EPA is now the proud owner of nearly five gallons of what is probably tap water. I’ll get tests tomorrow. You know what’s funny?” Steve hesitated, “She claims it worked. After drinking a glass a day for a week her arthritis went away, and never returned. If it tests out okay, she wants it back.”

Harry laughed. He too, heard stories of the effectiveness of radioactive materials in curing all kinds of illness and problems. “I’ve got a proposition for you.” he started.

Steve sat up, “What is it? I can tell you now I’m uncomfortable with the tone in your voice. It better be legitimate.”

“Will you settle for not immoral?” Harry lowered his voice, “Your ER guys are cleaning out that garage on the east side next week, right?”

“I think that’s still the schedule. Why?”

“You think they’d mind if I slipped in another drum of like material into their load. The incremental cost would be negligent, and it’s a whole lot easier than all the paperwork and funding hassles to send out a single drum.”

“It would probably depend on the source. Where’s this drum coming from?”

Harry hesitated, “You remember that little bitty spot we found in Ruby Hill Park?”

“You mean the one you won the bet over, and the one I didn’t want to include?” asked Steve.

“Oh,” responded Harry, “I thought that I was the one who didn’t want to include it. But, sure that’s the spot. I thought maybe we could have a little turf party out there this weekend. Straighten out the grass, maybe plant a little sod. You know.”

Steve was silent. He did know. Since this thing had broken, he and Harry and others had watched with increasing dismay as the politics and bureaucracy had locked up these sites. They had joked bitterly about which was longer, the half-life of radium or the agencies’ response time.

“I figure a little maintenance work on Sunday afternoon won’t be noticed, and maybe we’ll get one of these written off. Anyway, my boy’s Scout troop uses that hill for sledding in the winter.”

Steve replied, “I’ll talk to the ER guys. You bringing the beer?” He could sense Harry’s smile on the other end of the phone.

It was a beautiful fall day. Harry left the truck door open so they could hear the Bronco football game. It turned out that Gerry, the ER project manager wanted to come, and Harry brought a couple of state guys, so there were five of them in all. Harry passed out coveralls, to keep their clothes clean.

The spot was located far enough from the road that they could drink beer freely without being seen, and the maintenance man had left as soon as he’d shown them how to lay back the turf to make it easy to replace. Harry placed four stakes in the corners of the hot area. He and Steve shared the honors, as founders, of rolling the turf back and removing the first shovelfuls. They placed the excavated soil into one of two drums that Harry had brought. The second was “just in case”, according to Harry.

It was a little difficult for both of them to dig in the small space, so they took turns. At Harry’s instruction, Bob, one of Harry’s cohorts, kept checking the exposed soil with a scintillometer. The readings increased as they penetrated the surface. Below the first shovelful deep, the soil became very hard, and interspersed with cobbles and gravel.

When the drum was half full, Steve and Harry traded out with Gerry and Rick. Steve passed a beer to Harry, as they sat on the tailgate of Harry’s truck. “If it goes much deeper we’ll need that other drum,” he said needlessly.

Harry went over to kibitz with Bob over the readings. On the radio, Denver scored.

The shovelers stopped to ask what had happened. Steve hadn’t paid attention, so they all listened to the radio for a few more minutes. They went back to shoveling, and after a while the drum began to fill.

“Why don’t we start on the other one?” suggested Bob. Steve rolled it out of the truck, and set it up next to the other one. He tilted the mostly full drum with some difficulty, but found it wouldn’t roll on its edge in the grass.

Harry tried to help, but it wouldn’t budge. Gerry looked up, and offered, “You think we can lift that into the truck bed?”

Steve stopped and looked at Harry. They both laughed.

“Okay, smart guy. What now?” he asked Harry.

“How about putting the empty drum into the pickup, then we shovel the dirt into that drum from the full one?” Everybody hooted their approval, and Gerry and Bob took the opportunity to grab a beer.

Soon the empty drum was positioned at the rear of the pickup bed and they began to shovel dirt from the full drum into it.

“Try not to spill the dirt on the truck,” Harry cautioned. Steve snorted. It was nearly impossible to get all the dirt into the drum opening. It took the better part of an hour, and the whole third quarter. Finally, they started again on the hot spot.

After a while, Gerry remarked, “How full can we get this one, before it’s too heavy to lift up there?” Bob stopped shoveling and looked at him venomously.

“Let’s try it now,” suggested Steve. With difficulty, and support from the others, Harry and Steve were able to lift the partially filled drum into the truck.

“How much more is there?” They had excavated the hole to about a foot in most places and to nearly two feet in the center.

Rick took readings at several points in the excavation. “Still increasing.” he said.

They looked at each other. The second drum was nearly half full.

“Look,” said Steve, “why don’t we just dig in the center, and see how deep it is. Maybe we’re nearly done.”

“And maybe its Chinese radium,” growled Bob, starting to dig in the center.

Every few shovelfuls Rick took another reading. There was more time between shovelfuls now, since they had to be lifted up into the truck bed. Gerry tried standing in the bed and taking the shovel in a hand-off from Bob, but after several dropped shovels, they gave it up.

Harry had quit asking them to stop spilling dirt, the bed was littered with it.

At last, the second drum was full. The game had ended and Steve wondered idly who had won. Rick reported from the center of the hole, “No change. But it’s not increasing.”

There were only three more beers, Bob announced, opening his. Gerry and Rick eyed the other two, and slid over to the cooler to claim their prizes.

Steve looked to the west where the sun was nearing the mountain tops. He looked back at Harry, who was standing dejectedly looking into the hole. No one said anything.

“Well shit,” said Harry. No one responded. He looked around at them. “It’ll probably fill up quicker than it dug out,” he said.

At first there was silence, then Steve stifled a laugh, “Don’t forget to wash your truck when we’re done. I’d hate for it to become a Radium site.”

Everybody laughed, including Harry.