Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Colorado School of Mines Research Institute is the lack of public information. Despite the institute’s location in the center of Golden and being labeled as a Superfund (or CERCLA) site due to the presence of radionuclide and heavy metal contamination.
The lack of awareness is due largely to timing. The research institute shut down almost 30 years ago, primary cleanup was completed in 1997, and the site is now covered by the CSM athletic fields.
Originally, in 1912, CSM built and opened the Experimental Plant on the north edge of campus on the banks of Clear Creek. With the purpose of educating students through research and commercial testing, the facility topics focused on mining and petroleum industries, with a particular interest in radioactive ores.
In 1949 a new organization, the Colorado School of Mines Research Foundation (CSMRF), was established to expand the school’s research capabilities and ore testing functions. and was later renamed as Colorado School of Mines Research Institute (CSMRI). Although located adjacent to the CSM’s campus, and leasing the property for the site from the school, CSMRI had no official academic connections to the university.
CSMRI activities rose and fell with the mining industry. During the 1970’s, the United States focused on development of alternative domestic energy sources such as coal and nuclear energy. In 1987 CSMRI shut down all operations.
As the site closed, the remediation process began. The buildings contained 7,700 drums of ores and chemicals sent in by clients and left on site inside and out of buildings. Low levels of radiation were detected in the soil around the site, in the buildings’ drainage systems, and in the tailings pond. The tailings pond contained radionuclides, heavy metals, and hazardous chemical residues from the decades of operation.
In 1989, a physicist at Colorado Department of Health, Chuck Mattson, stated in a letter to CSMRI’s president, “There were no materials observed or detected which pose an immediate threat to persons walking across the area or to properties in the vicinity.” Additionally, Dr. James Kunkel performed a study in 1990 of the risk of flood erosion at the Creekside tailings pond and concluded, “The likelihood of release of CSMRI tailings pond materials during flood up to and including the 100-year flood has a small probability.”
Although the likelihood of a natural flood had small probability, Dr. Kunkel had not factored in the risk of a man-made flood. In January of 1992, a water main broke under building 109 on the Creekside site, flooding the contaminated drainage system and the connecting tailings pond. Thousands of gallons flowed through the pond, displacing sediments built up over 30 years. Composed of heavy metals, radionuclides, and other hazardous materials, the flood ran into Clear Creek, and compromised the drinking source for over 250,000 Colorado residents
The EPA responded to the release by initiating a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) Response Action. Immediately after the water main break, water sampling of Clear Creek, the Coors pond, the Farmer’s Highline Canal, the Croke Canal, Standley Lake, and the Maple Grove Reservoir was conducted with consistent follow up testing.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) analyzed the samples and determined the overflow from the pond had thankfully caused no permanent damage to these adverse public drinking sources so did not count as an ongoing health threat.
From 1992 to 1997, the site received extensive remediation. Well over 22,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil was removed. Water monitoring wells were put in place to ensure radioactive material did not migrate underground into Clear Creek. Now, the new stadium and soccer field cover what once was Colorado School of Mines research facility.