Comments on new Cotter Mill plan due August 1

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

State and federal health officials are inviting the public to submit informal preliminary comments on the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill’s Draft Quality Management Plan.

The 53-page plan outlines quality assurance, training, implementation of work, record keeping, response and corrective action protocols for the now-defunct mill as it moves toward decommissioning. The mill has been an EPA Superfund site since 1984 due to the seeping of uranium and molybdenum contamination into groundwater and soil which was caused by the use of unlined tailings ponds.

The draft plan can be viewed on the state’s Cotter website at

Comments can be sent to state health department project manager Jennifer Opila at Deadline is Aug. 1.

More Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site coverage here.

More legal wrangling over uranium mine near Grand Canyon

Originally posted on Summit County Citizens Voice:

The confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado River (river mile 157) is a popular place for boaters to stop and admire the striking blue-green water of Havasu Creek. The turquoise color is caused by water with a high mineral content. At the point where the blue creek meets the turbid colorado river there often appears a definite break. NPS photo by Erin Whittaker. The confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado River (river mile 157) is a popular place for boaters to stop and admire the striking blue-green water of Havasu Creek. The turquoise color is caused by water with a high mineral content. At the point where the blue creek meets the turbid colorado river there often appears a definite break. NPS photo by Erin Whittaker.

Impacts to water quality, cultural resources at stake, as conservation groups seek new environmental study

Staff Report

FRISCO — A U.S. Forest Service decision to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon will be tested in court once again.

Conservation groups last week said they’ll appeal a lower court ruling that affirmed the agency’s decision on the mine, located about six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell last month said conservation groups and the Havasupai Tribe failed…

View original 406 more words

Former Cotter Mill employees to get compensation for job-related illnesses

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill Site via The Denver Post
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill Site via The Denver Post

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder):

Benefits for workers sickened by Cañon City’s atomic legacy will be outlined at a federal Department of Labor town hall Wednesday morning.

The department oversees a program designed to compensate nuclear workers for cancer and other maladies associated with mining, hauling and processing uranium. Over the years, dozens of workers at Cañon City’s Cotter Mill have claimed their illnesses were caused by exposure to uranium and other toxic substances.

Now, the federal government wants to make sure sick workers get paid.

“The goal of the meeting is to make current and former nuclear weapons workers living in Colorado aware of the program and to assist them in finding information to determine eligibility for available compensation and medical benefits,” the Labor Department said in a news release.

Miners hit massive uranium deposits along the Front Range in the 1950s and the mill in Cañon City was built to process it into “yellow cake” – uranium oxide – which can be refined into fuel for reactors and weapons parts.

Processing uranium, though, left the mill in Cañon City marred by toxic leach fields and tailing ponds that were later deemed to be a federal Superfund cleanup site.

The leaching left water contaminated with heavy metals and solvents in unlined storage ponds that continue to drive worries over groundwater contamination.

The site, under supervision from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, has been at the center of a controversy over how to clean up the damage.

A settlement agreement reached over the summer says Cotter will pay for continued cleanup under state supervision.

Taking care of workers falls under the Labor Department, which has administered health care and compensation for nuclear workers since Congress in 1990 approved the Radiation Exposure Act.

The act offers lump-sum payments and health care coverage for those sickened by radiation work that fell under the federal Department of Energy.

In recent years, Labor Department experts have held regular meetings in Cañon City to advise workers on the payments.

More nuclear coverage here.

Moab tailings cleanup update: Around half the pile has been moved #ColoradoRiver

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Nearly half of what had been a 16 million-ton pile of uranium mill tailings sitting on the north side of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, is gone, having been hauled some 30 miles to the north, well away from the river. About 7.2 million tons of tailings that date to Cold War efforts to refine uranium were taken to Crescent Junction to be buried in a disposal cell below the Book Cliffs (spelled with two words in Utah).

“It’s amazing to think about where we were 10 years ago,” when planning for the cleanup got underway, said Don Metzler, federal project director for the cleanup.

“I drove by there the other day and, boy, it’s really noticeable,” Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said of the shrinking mill-tailings pile.

“The townspeople are really happy about seeing that pile go away.”

Moab residents have long wanted the pile removed, and their hopes were echoed by downstream states that depend on the Colorado for water.

The tailings are shipped by rail from the site to Crescent Junction, where they’re removed for burial in the cell. Estimates about the magnitude of such projects frequently run low, but so far the original estimate of 16 million tons has proven pretty accurate, Metzler said.

“In the end, it might be a little larger,” but the disposal cell should be easily able to contain the tailings, Metzler said.

So far, progress on the pile has been on budget and on time, Metzler said, noting that there were no lost-time accidents or injuries on the project in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

The Department of Energy is requesting $35.8 million for the project in 2015 and the estimated total cost is in a range of $928 million to $936 million.

The project employs 136 people, 30 of them Mesa County residents.

Cleanup is to be complete by 2025.

Officials in Moab and Grand County are now looking ahead to what will come next on the 480-acre site. About 130 acres were covered by the pile.

Ideas include additional parking for Arches National Park, a consolidated federal office structure, a park and bike trails, or an outdoor amphitheater, Sakrison said.

Whatever goes on the site, said Sakrison, “It’s not going to be industrial.”

More nuclear coverage here.

Final Cotter report released — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

Federal public health representatives who studied health concerns for Lincoln Park Superfund site residents living near the Cotter Uranium Mill issued a final report last week. The 260-page report includes comments made by citizens following its initial 2010 release. Many of the comments from citizens indicated the report was confusing, so o’cials with the Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry attempted to clarify some of the confusion.

The Cotter Uranium Mill processed yellowcake uranium from 1958 to 1987 before going into sporadic operations. The mill has not processed uranium since 2006 and Cotter officials, along with state and federal health officials, are working toward a full cleanup of the site which has been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list since 1984.

The health report concludes that drinking water for many years from a private well that contains elevated levels of molybdenum and uranium could harm people’s health. Although nearly all residents who have contaminated wells have been hooked up to the city water supply, some still use the wells to irrigate.

During 2008 testing, one of the seven wells exceeded the drinking water standard for molybdenum. The owner of that well declined to be connected to the municipal water system, according to the report.

“The groundwater remains contaminated and the contaminant plume can migrate to previously uncontaminated wells. Therefore, a future potential pathway also exists for other private wells until the contamination is cleaned up and no one is drinking contaminated well water,” according to the report.

The State Engineer’s Office is required to tell all well applicants who want to drill for water that there is potential contamination.

The report also concludes that accidentally ingesting or touching soil or sediment in the Lincoln Park community will not harm people’s health.

“However, there is not enough information for the agency to determine if exposures to lead will harm people’s health in residential communities immediately northwest of the Cotter Mill,” the report indicates.

Although soil north and west of the Cotter Mill is contaminated with high levels of lead, there were no elevated levels of lead in the blood of children and residents tested.

The report also concludes that a person eating an average amount of homegrown fruits and vegetables defined as approximately 1cups per day will not experience harmful health effects. However, people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, defined as approximately 5 cups per day from their Lincoln Park gardens over a long period of years, may be at risk from exposure to arsenic.

The agency, “was unable to determine the source of the arsenic found in the fruits and vegetables; it could originate from natural sources. The agency recommends that residents who have gardens wash their homegrown produce thoroughly before eating it,” according to the report.

Finally, the agency’s report concludes that, “Air emissions of particle bound radionuclides have not resulted in exposures to the public at levels known to cause adverse health outcomes. Outdoor radon concentrations will not harm people’s health.”

“With the exception of thorium-230 levels observed in 1981 and 1982 that were associated with excavation of contaminated tailings, every radionuclide monitored has been more than a factor of 10 below annual dosebased health limits to the public. The excavation releases appear to have only exposed onsite workers, but that exposure still was below occupational limits at that time,” according to the report.

To view the final report, go to

From the Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

When rainstorms sent a surge of muddy debris down Sand Creek late this summer, people living near the defunct Cotter Uranium Mill were thinking, “Here we go again!”

A big 1965 flood washed radioactive sludge toward the nearby Lincoln Park neighborhood, a foothill community near Cañon City where residents have horses and apples trees in their backyards. The plume of poisoned water spread underground. Fifty years later, there are still three wells in Lincoln Park where the uranium concentrations are above state standards set to protect human health.

This year’s late summer rainstorms gummed up critical pumps and pipes, part of a system built to prevent radioactive waste from escaping the polluted 2,600-acre Cotter property, which has been designated as a high priority federal Superfund cleanup site for the past quarter century.

The fact that a series of checks on dams and underground barriers showed they apparently worked the way they’re supposed to during the recent floods is small comfort to some Lincoln Park residents who worry about continued health risks and complain that state and federal regulators are still dragging their feet on the long-mandated cleanup.

“I realize the surface water is getting captured pretty well, but we’ve asked for better monitoring of groundwater, and we’ve been refused over and over again,” said Lincoln Park resident Sharyn Cunningham.

“We’ve asked them to do scientific studies to show there is no underground movement of water and they’ve refused numerous times,” she added, noting that uranium levels in the groundwater on the Cotter property are “horrendously high.”

In the wake of the most recent flooding, concerned locals say Cotter and the government officials tasked with overseeing the cleanup seemed to be defying a new state law that sets deadlines for inspections and reporting.

Kindergarten Rules

Cunningham and other residents want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to lean on the Cotter Corporation harder to accelerate the cleanup effort. The company is a Denver-based subsidiary of General Atomics, a corporation with lucrative federal nuclear contracts. Cotter owns or controls 15 uranium and vanadium mines in southwest Colorado with an estimated 100 million pounds of ore. Watchdogs say the company has plenty of money to pay for a cleanup, and that big corporations — especially ones with government contracts — ought to play by the same simple kindergarten rules that apply to the rest of us.

“You make a mess, you clean it up,” said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney representing Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste. At the Cotter site — which is so close to Cañon City and upstream from the Arkansas River — the best option would be to dig up most of the toxic radioactive waste and move it to a geologically stable and remote site where it would pose the least threat to people and the environment, watchdogs say.

The mill started producing uranium oxide, or yellowcake in 1958 as part of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup. The concentrated uranium powder is the raw material for fissionable nuclear fuel. According to Cunningham, who curates an extensive library of documents related to the site, some of the waste came from the Manhattan Project, America’s WWII atom bomb effort.

Up until 1980, Cotter dumped radioactive waste into unlined ponds. It wasn’t until 1988, 30 years after Cotter started operation, that the state required the company to build a groundwater barrier to trap tainted water and pump it back up into evaporation ponds on its property.

Along with uranium, toxic materials at the Cotter site include radium, polonium, thorium and heavy metals like mercury, molybdenum, thorium and radioactive lead. Intermittently, Cotter processed those materials with other toxic chemicals, including nitric acid and hydrochloric acid — all combining into a poisonous brew. Many of the pollutants are known to have human health impacts, including an increased cancer risk.

“It makes fracking fluid look good enough to drink,” Stills said.

In 2010, monitoring revealed a potential new threat — volatile organic compounds had started showing up in the site’s groundwater. Specifically, testing detected Trichloroethylene, a known cancer-causing chemical used mainly as an industrial solvent, suggesting the chemical may have been introduced to the water as Cotter dismantled some of the old facilities on the site.

An updated federal health assessment completed earlier this month details potential health risks linked with exposure to the toxic materials stored at Cotter. The report was published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and includes a detailed timeline of the decades-long, on-and-off efforts to decontaminate property.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment defends its work overseeing the cleanup, including diligent groundwater monitoring that shows the plume of contaminated groundwater beneath Lincoln Park has shrunk in recent years.

“We take our mission to protect public health and environment seriously,” said Warren Smith, the state’s liaison at the Cotter site. Smith said two inspections, on Aug. 25 and Sept. 23, showed no sign that contaminated water leaked off the property. Aside from the pumpback failure, he said the rest of the site’s containment system, including key dams, worked as intended during the recent floods.

“Cotter is required to report these incidents and they have been.”

Smith said there are three wells in Lincoln Park where the uranium concentration is above the state standard of 30 micrograms per liter. The concentrations in these wells are less than 40 micrograms per liter.

Snail-Paced Cleanup

Environmental concerns about the Cotter Mill are nothing new. The state started demanding a cleanup way back in 1983 by filing a complaint under the Superfund law, formally called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.

The Cotter Corporation challenged the move in court, setting the tone for decades of mistrust. Years of missteps and withheld information has done nothing to convince residents that the company is meeting its cleanup obligation, Stills said. This year’s breakdown of the pumpback system is just the latest in a long list of snafus at the mill site, including previous pipe failures 2010, 2012 and 2013.

“The same people have been making the same mistakes for decades,” said Stills, noting that the string of contaminated waste releases shows that state and federal oversight have been lax at best. As he sees it, Cotter has been gaming the system for 30 years, and that state health officials have played along.

“To me, it suggests consistent contempt by CDPHE staff for the community perspective,” Stills said.
The biggest concern is that the mill’s entire aging containment system could be vulnerable to catastrophic failure that could put thousands of people at risk. The site is about 1.5 miles north of Cañon City. The closest neighbor is a quarter-mile away. About 6,000 people live within about a two-mile radius of the mill, and about 20,000 people live within five miles.

About Time?

In July, Cotter Corporation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and EPA signed a deal that spells out Cotter’s legal obligation to start working on a final cleanup plan. The agreement is a required step in the federal Superfund process. The public can comment on the proposed agreement until October 27 at or in writing to by contacting EPA Enforcement Specialist Virginia Phillips.

“EPA is aware of recent incidents involving the pumpback system at the Cotter facility, including incidents related to flooding events and an occurrence of pipe damage which has since been repaired,” said Rich Mylott, a spokesman for the EPA, which will work with the CDPHE to investigate the pumpback system breakdown.

Cunningham and other residents are skeptical that the Cotter Corporation will do a thorough cleanup unless state and federal officials keep a close, diligent watch.

“The community doesn’t trust Cotter and CDPHE to do these things in private,” she said. “Two years ago, they promised us a roadmap toward cleanup, and we haven’t put one foot on that road yet.”

The Superfund cleanup deal may also have some loopholes.

Watchdogs want the state and feds to investigate what other companies besides Cotter may have contributed to contamination at the mine. That would help identify all the toxic materials at the site. They also want Cotter and government regulators to gather more detailed information on groundwater movement, including a tracer study, which involves adding a chemical marker to the water upstream, then monitoring when and where it appears downstream — a common way of tracking pollutants.

The EPA and the CDPHE are now on the same page on the Cotter cleanup so Cunningham is more hopeful that there will, someday, be a final resolution, said Cunningham, who lives less than a mile from the contaminated site.

Until then, she plans to keep watching the agencies closely. History has shown, she said, that somebody needs to keep watch and keep pressing for completion of the cleanup in the face of Cotter’s continued resistance and delays. Both Stills and Cunningham said they think the company has too much sway with regulators, who seem to be more responsive Cotter than to residents living near its mill’s mess.

“You just get up every day and do what you can,” Cunningham said. “This is a terribly contaminated site, and somebody has to make sure the authorities in charge are doing the right thing and are not just being influenced by Cotter.”

More Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site coverage here and here.

Denver District Court Throws Out License to Build Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill—Again — @sheepmtn

Here’s the release from the Sheep Mountain Alliance (Hillary Cooper):

A Denver district judge has ruled against the license issued by the state of Colorado to Energy Fuels to construct and operate a uranium mill in Paradox Valley in western Montrose County for the second time.

In a court ruling issued Wednesday, September 3, 2014, District Judge Robert McGahey found that the hearing process for the mill, ordered by a previous judge who invalidated the license in June of 2012, did not comply with the 2012 order. In today’s order, Judge McGahey ruled that a hearing officer must review the record established at the November 2012 hearing and make an “initial decision as to whether Energy Fuels application has met all criteria under state law.” Sheep Mountain Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild retained technical experts who presented solid evidence at the hearing to prove that Energy Fuels’ application was based on false information and that the environmental review was incomplete.

“This process has been mishandled by the state agency from the start and the district court has agreed again,” stated Hilary Cooper, executive eirector of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “If the state chooses to continue this process, it will be taking action on a 2009 application for a project that will most likely never be built.”

Sheep Mountain Alliance, a grassroots conservation group based in Telluride, Colorado, has led the effort with Rocky Mountain Wild to stop the Piñon Ridge uranium mill based on significant environmental impacts to the surrounding region. SMA filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado in February 2011 after the first radioactive materials license was issued to Energy Fuels. The Piñon Ridge mill would have been the first conventional uranium processing mill approved in the U.S. since 1980. The judge agreed with SMA’s challenge and ordered an independent hearing officer to conduct a hearing in November 2012. The hearing officer did not take action on issues raised during the hearing. Instead, the hearing officer sent the file to the state with simple direction to proceed with the license consideration. The state then issued a second license to Energy Fuels in April 2013. SMA and RMW again challenged the decision, and today’s ruling found that the hearing officer “failed to make a conclusion as to whether Energy Fuels application met all criteria for issuance of a license pursuant”.

In the meantime, Energy Fuels acquired the existing White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, and admitted that they did not intend to build the Piñon Ridge mill because of unfavorable economic conditions and the redundancy of two mills in close proximity. In addition, Energy Fuels has entered into a contract to sell the Piñon Ridge mill property and other assets to George Glasier, the original founder of Energy Fuels, who is backed by Baobab Asset Management, Inc.

“The application lacks sufficient analysis of impacts to wildlife and the environment,” states Matt Sandler, staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “This decision is a win for the wildlife and the natural resources of this region. Our hope is that this remand will finally highlight the deficient environmental analysis included in the application.”

“The state has a clear choice to deny the Energy Fuels application and require a future developer to reapply with an updated application, which must address the conditions on the ground at that time,” states Cooper. “It’s time to release the communities of southwest Colorado from the false hope embellished by this industry for too long.”

More nuclear coverage here.

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill de-commissioning comment period extended

From The Pueblo Chieftain:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state health officials have extended public comment periods on Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill decommissioning documents. Public comments are due by Oct. 27. All documents and addresses for comments to be submitted can be found on the state’s website at