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Know the West

Mopping up uranium's mess

States push to clean up mine and mill sites


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.

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.