GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Over the years, the former Anvil Points federal oil shale research site west of Rifle was busy enough at times that workers lived in 74 homes built by the government and three buses came by to take children to Rifle schools.
Today, after a cleanup that started in 2008 and ended last fall, little evidence of the site's existence remains, other than three reseeded mounds with signs indicating that they're repositories for oil shale waste.
High up the Roan Plateau above the 365-acre research site, four gaping mine portals large enough that big trucks once drove through them have been closed off to all but bats. The portals tapped mines that were sometimes 1,000 feet long or more, employed hundreds of miners at their peak and provided 400,000 cubic yards of oil shale that underwent retort heating processes at the research site.
These days, rather than miners, the plateau's Anvil Points area attracts wing-suited skydiving daredevils who launch from its steep, namesake cliffs. But Ed Cooley, a Garfield County native who long worked at the research site and lives within sight of it today, said probably as many as four generations of some families were employed at the mine and facility.
"It had a pretty major impact on the area," said Cooley, who worked at the site when the Colorado School of Mines leased it in the 1960s, and was the plant manager from 1976-82, when it was being leased by Paraho.
The research site was opened by the Navy in the 1940s beneath what were then called the Naval Oil Shale Reserves 1 and 3 on the plateau. The intent was to pioneer oil shale mining, processing and research and development by the government and private industry, with the goal of helping make commercial production of oil viable.
Activity levels waxed and waned over the decades, as has been the case with oil shale development efforts in the region in general.
The site ended up in the hands of the Department of Energy, which completed decommissioning of it and demolition of buildings in 1986, following the oil shale bust a few years earlier.
Congress transferred the research site and the oil shale reserves to the Bureau of Land Management in 1997, and provided that cleanup of the site would be paid for by federal revenues from nearby oil and gas development.
"There were huge waste piles of retorted oil shale that didn't pose an immediate hazard but still needed to be cleaned up," said John Beck, who is branch chief for lands and realty for the Colorado state office of the Bureau of Land Management, and oversaw the $24 million cleanup project.
"I think they did a very good job with the (cleanup) work over there," Cooley said.
He said he didn't think the site posed much of an environmental concern. But still, "I think it did need to be cleaned up and put to bed, so to speak, from an aesthetic standpoint if nothing else," he said.
For the BLM, part of the problem was that waste shale had been dumped in an adjacent valley that's home to the intermittent West Sharrard Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, raising concern about the potential for contamination from runoff. Carla DeYoung, a BLM ecologist who was an inspector for the project, said arsenic levels in the waste measured six times background levels in the area.
In addition, a fire of undetermined origin in a waste pile created a lot of ash that had to be shipped to a landfill in Denver. The fire also drew oil out of the shale and it accumulated at the base of the waste pile. Petroleum-contaminated material was shipped to C B Industries Delta, a Delta facility where it could be spread out and "land-farmed," a process under which bacteria can consume the petroleum.
The sheer volume of waste also proved daunting. The BLM planned on building one waste repository but ran out of room and had to build a second, smaller one nearby, and eventually an even smaller third one.
"The biggest challenges we faced were how were we going to make sure we could accommodate all the material," Beck said.
The repositories include geomembrane liners at the bottom and 30-inch-thick clay caps on top, covered by reseeded topsoil.
Other aspects of the cleanup included demolition and site restoration work involving a former water treatment plant near the river that supplied Anvil Points, and closing off of the mine entrances, which are highly unstable because of the loose surrounding shale. The bat entrances may be helping the Townsend's big-eared bat, a BLM-designated sensitive species. While the bats that visit the mines aren't known, Townsend's bats use caves at the plateau base.
The Parachute penstemon, a wildflower listed as threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service, also is located in the area of the mines. Fish and Wildlife has said the cleanup led to impacts on about 90 of the plants. But DeYoung said probably fewer than 10 were lost due to actions such as inadvertent crushing, and protective measures including transplanting were used to protect the species.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also has regulatory authority over the site. Michael Cosby, an environmental protection specialist with the department's Hazardous Material and Waste Management Division, said the BLM and its contractor, Idaho-based North Wind, have done a good job with the cleanup, and the repository cells are well-constructed.
The state had wanted fencing around the repositories to keep motorized vehicles from damaging the clay caps, but was satisfied when the BLM agreed to mark them with signs and place rocks to keep out vehicles, with the caveat that fencing would be installed later if those measures don't work. The state also was interested in having groundwater monitoring wells installed but agreed instead to the installation of sumps that allow the BLM to detect whether water has worked its way into the repositories and to test the water for contamination.
But the state and BLM disagree on one significant matter. The state wants an environmental covenant placed at the site, to ensure periodic inspections and prevent inappropriate future use of the property.
"You'd never put a day care center on top of a uranium mill tailings pile, that sort of thing," Cosby said.
The BLM says it's inappropriate and not within state authority to encumber federal land with a covenant.
"The BLM is a land-managing agency. We manage the land appropriately to protect the public's interest," Beck said.
He said the BLM continues to work with the state and nothing's been decided yet. But Cosby said the state is required by state law to file the covenant.
"I think the BLM will file a rebuttal to that. I don't know what that means," said Cosby, who speculated that the dispute might end up having to be settled in court.
Although the cleanup has faced a number of unexpected challenges, from legal to on-the-ground ones, Beck is proud that its cost ended up being exactly what the BLM certified in advance that it would be so that fast-accumulating oil and gas revenues would no longer have to be set aside for it. Accurately forecasting the price tag, which includes $1 million for a five-year monitoring, "was amazing because we knew there were a lot of unknowns out there," he said.