Mopping up uranium's mess

States push to clean up mine and mill sites

  • The Cotter Uranium Mill, with its holding ponds containing radionuclides and heavy metals, lies just a mile from the neighborhoods of Canon City, Colorado.


When Sharyn Cunningham moved to Cañon City, Colorado in 1994, no one told her the groundwater was contaminated - not her real estate agent, not the county health department, not state regulators. For eight years, she and her family unknowingly used a well tainted with uranium and molybdenum from the Cotter Corporation uranium mill a mile away, a Superfund site since 1984. The mill, the only one in the state, shut down in 1989, then reopened from 2004 to 2006; now, Cotter wants to once again start operations at the site. Despite millions spent on remediation, contamination persists today.

As co-chair of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste, Cunningham has lobbied for cleanup of her community's groundwater for the last eight years. This spring, the Colorado legislature finally heard the call. It passed the Uranium Processing Accountability Act, which mandates cleanup before Cotter can resume processing uranium ore, which it plans to do by 2014. Gov. Bill Ritter signed the bill into law on June 9.

"When we showed (legislators) the facts of all the contamination here and how long Cotter has dragged their feet cleaning stuff up," Cunningham says, "they saw there's no excuse for it. "

Resounding bipartisan support for the bill in the state house (60-3) and senate (24-9) suggests an urgency to mop up the old hot mess before a new wave of uranium production breaks ground.

Similar public sentiment has other Western states pushing back as federal support for nuclear energy propels an ensuing uranium boom. The toxic legacy of the last boom persists throughout the West as abandoned mines and tailings piles continue to contaminate groundwater and health problems plague nearby communities. Initiatives like the Colorado uranium bill and a grassroots-led uranium cleanup plan in New Mexico highlight mounting frustration at the fallout from lax regulation and lagging remediation efforts.

The new Colorado law requires Cotter to restore polluted groundwater to safe levels before restarting operations. This creates an incentive that supporters hope will motivate cleanup more promptly than current government oversight has. The bill also mandates public notification about contaminated groundwater by mill operators, improved public participation in bonding decisions, and updated licensing for mills that process alternate feeds (waste material containing low levels of uranium, such as mine tailings).

Cotter's cleanup of air, soil, and water contamination, regulated by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and overseen by EPA, has been ongoing for 30 years. The mill, owned by General Atomics, has accrued 99 regulatory violations in the last decade. Its plans for expansion spurred campaigns by the Cañon City citizens group and Environment Colorado for legislation to accelerate the clean-up, helping lead to the new law.

Remediation of past uranium mill sites in Colorado has cost taxpayers $950 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy -- another issue addressed by the bill, which calls for more public involvement in bonding decisions. Cotter's current bond is $18 million; the state health department has estimated twice that amount to remedy contamination at the site. In response to the bill, Cotter has stated that the cost of cleanup requirements would halt its plans to reopen the mill. Yet actually starting up the aging mill would cost Cotter at least $200 million, suggesting a wide gap between what the company is willing to invest in cleanup versus operation. Cotter vice-president John Hamrick declined further comment.

Colorado's law also applies to new mills like the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill in Western Colorado's Paradox Valley, but will not affect the application process now underway. Piñon Ridge would be the first new uranium mill built in the U.S. in 25 years. Public comments on the $12 million bond proposed in the application -- an amount called insufficient by mill opponents -- are being reviewed by the state. Under the new law, a similar public process will also be required annually to review (and potentially increase) the bond.

Ripple effects of the Colorado law could reach beyond state lines. In New Mexico, a General Atomics subsidiary plans to reopen a uranium mine on Mount Taylor, the designated ore source for the Cotter Mill. Without that mill in operation, however, the Mount Taylor mine could stall.

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