Utes take on environmental issues

Buildings cleared, old leaking landfill will be capped

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga

Quinton Jacket, brownfields coordinator for the Ute Mountain tribe, explains a tricky demolition project in Towaoc. The 120-foot smoke stack is left over from a historic coal-fired heating system, but it is deterioating and needs to be removed. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga Quinton Jacket, brownfields coordinator for the Ute Mountain tribe, explains a tricky demolition project in Towaoc. The 120-foot smoke stack is left over from a historic coal-fired heating system, but it is deterioating and needs to be removed.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has embarked on a cleanup mission, demolishing long-abandoned buildings in Towaoc and addressing a problematic old landfill.

Under the tribe’s brownfields program, five vacant, unsafe buildings were demolished and hauled away in the past two weeks, and more demolitions are planned.

“Through the direction of Chairman Manuel Heart and the environmental department, we are cleaning up the community,” said Quinton Jacket, brownfields coordinator. “The old buildings are an eyesore and a public hazard because of toxic materials. They are not structurally sound either, and some are partially or totally burned.”

In Towaoc, there are 77 abandoned buildings that have been inventoried, including 17 trailers and 18 public buildings, many from the 1930s to 1950s.

“We’re making room for new development for tribal services and government buildings,” Jacket said. “Clearing these old vacant homes and falling-down shops makes room to put up new public housing for the community, and we have done that. The infrastructure is already there.”

A detailed process is followed before buildings are demolished, he said. Research is conducted on past ownership and to make sure they are not on the tribe’s historic building list.

“We also go through a detailed probate and title process and meet with past owners and families,” Jacket said. “Everyone signs off on it.”

Each building is lab-tested for hazardous materials, including lead, asbestos, and mold. Demolition firm Enviro-Tech contracts with the tribe to haul away the buildings and debris.

“If there is contamination beyond EPA thresholds, there is a thorough process we follow for safe environmental cleanup,” said Jacket, who is licensed to investigate hazardous materials, collect and analyze samples.

“For buildings with toxic health hazards, there is an abatement process for removal. A special solution is sprayed on the buildings before demolition that adheres to the surface and prevents dust from being released into the air,” he said.

The contaminated debris is hauled to a special landfill in Farmington.

Depending on the structure, it can cost the tribe between $10,000 and $18,000 to clear away a building safely. The expense limits how many can be done per year, typically between 3 and 5.

Some are more challenging, such as a 120-foot concrete smokestack that is beginning to crumble from the top. The structure is leftover from a coal-fired heating system that heated government buildings.

“We’re still figuring out how to best bring it down,” Jacket said.

The tribe is also addressing an abandoned landfill on the outskirts of town that was closed in 1997 but was never properly mitigated.

“It is leaching into the ground, and needs an improved soil cap,” Jacket said. “An old tire dump at the location is also being cleared.”

The tribe is seeking a $200,000 grant from the EPA to conduct an environmental assessment of the closed landfill site, located adjacent to a waste-management transfer station. Once the site has been stabilized, the tribe eventually plans to install solar panels at the site.

Jacket said a public meeting on the landfill cleanup project, and problem of illegal dumping and trash burning, is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 8, at 4:30 p.m. at the Towaoc Community Center.

“We will be presenting information on the problem and explaining the hazards to our air and land when trash is burned,” Jacket said.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com

An old tire dump and abandoned landfill on the outskirts of Towaoc is being cleaned up by the tribe’s environmental department. Enlargephoto

Jim Mimiaga/Cortez Journal

An old tire dump and abandoned landfill on the outskirts of Towaoc is being cleaned up by the tribe’s environmental department.