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.

    SKYTRUTH/GOOGLE EARTH
 

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Meanwhile, a new five-year plan to remediate old uranium sites in the Grants Mineral District in northwest New Mexico is underway. The plan focuses on assessing drinking water pollution, removing contaminated residential structures and cleaning up five mill sites and over 100 abandoned mines. Most sites were left by long-defunct companies before any regulations were in place, leaving cleanup to the government. Numerous new mine and mill proposals in the state spurred the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, a coalition of grassroots groups, to push state and federal agencies to get rid of old contamination before uranium booms again.

In early 2009, New Mexico legislators got on board and went to Washington, D.C., to rally federal support for a uranium cleanup plan similar to the 2008 Navajo Nation plan that pioneered the interagency model. That April, the Environmental Protection Agency began coordinating a diverse coalition of federal, state, and tribal agencies and their ongoing efforts to reclaim abandoned uranium mines and other contaminated sites. The final draft of the plan is scheduled for late summer.

New Mexico saw further progress towards cleanup in May, when the Bureau of Land Management awarded almost $1 million to state regulators for inventory of hazardous uranium mines and reclamation of the Poison Canyon mines near Grants, among others. The federal government has never regulated operating mines, leaving that work to state agencies.

"We are really trying to respond to 50 to 60 years of neglect and disinterest," says Chris Shuey, health scientist with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. "It's a slow process." The New Mexico five-year cleanup plan doesn't have the teeth of the new Colorado law. It's a start, says Shuey, but it does not recommend any new funding and lacks a coherent strategy for public involvement.

Back in Cañon City, Sharyn Cunningham wonders if the new law will speed Cotter's multi-decade cleanup. State regulators recently rejected the company's plan to remediate contaminated water being discharged from another of its operations, a uranium mine near the city of Golden. The company agreed to begin treating the water in July. After 16 years of waiting, Cunningham seems optimistic that her town will see progress too.

"After this bill passed, it felt like the sun was brighter here," she says. "Like there's hope."

Nathan Rice is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.

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