Has the Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill groundwater reached Pueblo Reservoir?

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 (Anthony A. Mestas and Tracy Harmon):

Pueblo County Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen is calling for sediment testing along the Arkansas River and at the bottom of Lake Pueblo to see if there is possible contamination from the now-closed Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill in Fremont County.

McFadyen said Tuesday during a press conference that she is concerned about the impact the possible “growing uranium and molybdenum plumes could have on Pueblo County.”

However, state health officials say the concerns are unfounded. But McFadyen remains concerned.

“This has been going on for 40 years and we can see that the situation is not getting any better and it’s time for us downstream from Canon City to take a stand,” McFadyen said, referring to the ongoing battle over the Cotter Mill cleanup.

Jeri Fry, director of the Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste Inc., shared the history of the Cotter controversy and presented maps from a 1987-89 study sowing ground uranium and molybdenum plumes that stretch from the Cotter Superfund site toward the Arkansas River.

“It’s likely that the molybdenum and the uranium plumes have grown since then. We just want answers,” McFadyen said. “And if the Arkansas isn’t contaminated, then that’s a very positive finding . . . We don’t find what we don’t look for.”

However, the concerns are unfounded, according to Colorado Department of Public Health Public Information Officer Warren Smith and Cotter Corp. Mill Manager Steve Cohen. They agree that Arkansas River water is not impacted by contamination from the Cotter mill.

“The Arkansas River is sampled routinely and the results have been showing that the river water quality has not been impacted,” Smith said.

“We constantly collect samples and data every quarter and there is no evidence that Cotter has impacted the Arkansas River.”

Both state and federal health officials study the data and “nobody has ever found anything to suggest that,” said Cohen.

“I am personally disgusted that the Pueblo County commissioners would have a meeting about this and not invite us to speak on the topic,” Cohen said.

And Jennifer Opila, Colorado Department of Public Health site director, said:

“I understand that the sediment has not been sampled (since 2004), but without impact on the water quality, there is no information that would lead us to believe the sediment would be contaminated. There is no contamination of the Arkansas River near the Cotter site, so Pueblo Reservoir would not be impacted.”

“This issue and all other potential issues will be looked at as part of the remedial investigation as we work toward final cleanup,” she said.

McFadyen said she is aware of water testing, but is calling for sediment testing and if it is positive, “Cotter should pay to treat it.”

McFadyen said in 1986, the USGS suggested on behalf of the federal government that sediment and not only the water be tested in the Pueblo reservoir.

“With the plume growing toward the Arkansas River, it’s time. It’s time to take action,” McFadyen said.

She said the possible contamination also could affect Colorado Springs because of the Southern Delivery System, which pipes water from Lake Pueblo up to that community.

State health officials overseeing the Cotter Corp. mill have not felt the study of Minnequa and Pueblo reservoir water quality pertinent since 2004.

“A 2004 review of water quality of the (Minnequa and Pueblo) reservoirs as well as the Arkansas River and associated drainages concluded that they are not impacted by the mill contaminants,” Smith said.

Part of the reason that the downstream reservoirs have not been tested since 2004 is due to the absence of high levels of radium-226, thoium-230, molybdenum and nickel in bodies of water much closer to the mill.

“Sediment sampling in Sand Creek (just north of the mill site), the Arkansas River and the Fremont Ditch indicate that constituents of concern are similar to (natural) background data. These locations are closer to the mill than the Pueblo reservoir and the Minnequa Reservoir,” the state health review concluded.

While the legacy contamination is still present in Lincoln Park groundwater plume (though declining), remedial measures have been effective in preventing public exposure to the Lincoln Park plume. A 2008 water use survey concluded that only one Lincoln Park water well exceeded a drinking water standard for contamination.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry draft public health assessment in 2010, conducted at the request of Colorado Citizen’s Against Toxic Waste, found that Cotter contamination did not present a current threat to human health or the environment, according to state health documentation.

“We need to understand all of the materials and how they are moving through the groundwater and how after these 30-40 years they have reached the river and if they are moving on downstream,” Fry said.

“That is a terrible trick to play on our neighbors. When you see a barn burning, do you go tell the authorities or do you just turn your head? And I am telling the authorities. Let’s all band together and get this tested.”

More From KOAA.com (Lena Howland):

“This site is leaking into the neighboring community and it has contaminated the wells and it is a slow moving problem and because of that, people aren’t aware of it,” Fry said.

Fry is calling for more testing of water near the site and they’re looking for help from the community.

“Until we know where it is, we can’t realistically, effectively clean it up,” she said.

She fears the waste may have spread downstream through the Arkansas River and to the Pueblo Reservoir, which has caught the attention of Pueblo County Commissioner Buffie McFadyen.

“I do believe it’s time for Pueblo to get involved and work with the citizens of Fremont County to not only demand a remediation plan that’s realistic to cleanup the site, but also to demand testing along the Arkansas in the sediment and in Pueblo Reservoir,” she said.

McFadyen, now also demanding more testing of the sediment specifically.

And the possibility of tainted water is unsettling to some locals in Pueblo.

“This water comes from the same area, I imagine it passes through, so it’s picking up stuff definitely,” Patricia Hitchcock, a Pueblo resident said.

While others say, this isn’t anything to worry about just yet.

“I think there’s always a little bit of concern about stuff in the water, it wouldn’t keep me out unless it was really serious, but a little bit of concern. In 10 years, I haven’t gotten sick once from the water,” Daniel Rottinghaus, a Pueblo kayaker said.

Cotter officials tell News5 these claims of contamination in the Arkansas River are simply not true and that they routinely test the water and sediment.

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

Tuesday morning, Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste gave a presentation to commissioners about their suspicions that the toxic substances have leaked into Pueblo Reservoir.

Why should we in Colorado Springs care? Because one source of water for Colorado Springs and Fountain is the Pueblo Reservoir, via the Fountain Valley Authority line and the Southern Delivery System pipeline.

Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen is, Pueblo County Commissioner is overseeing efforts to learn more about the situation.

Here’s a community newsletter about the issue.

And here’s a presentation made today by the citizen group.

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill update: Replacement pipeline in the works

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:

After two recent breaks in the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill’s pumpback pipeline which returns contaminated water to an impoundment, officials on Friday outlined a plan to replace 3,500 feet of the pipeline.

Cotter officials reported two leaks occurring at the end of November and in early December in a pipeline that captures contaminated water that seeps past an earthen dam on Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill. It appears that both times the leaks were contained to Cotter property, according to Warren Smith of the Colorado Department of Public Health.

The now-defunct mill is undergoing the decommissioning process as health officials decide how best to safely retire the site. The pipeline proposal can be seen at http://recycle4colorado.ipower.com/Cotter/docspubreview.htm.

The importance of designing industrial locations for spill containment, they will happen

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

From The Canon City Daily Record (Sarah Rose):

The Cotter Corp. reported a water spill at their site [November 26, 2015] to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the CDPHE said.

“(Cotter) discovered a spill of approximately 1,800 gallons of water at the pumpback line immediately upstream of the SCS dam on Cotter property,” a CDPHE email states. “They believe that the spill occurred overnight or early that morning. All water was drained back to the sump and no standing water was left on the ground. The leak has been repaired and the pumps have been turned back on.”

The CDPHE stated this incident is currently under investigation, but they believe water did not go beyond the property.

“A multi-part containment system keeps surface water and groundwater on Cotter property from entering Lincoln Park,” the email stated. “System features include a compacted clay barrier extending to non-porous shale on the upstream side of the Soil Conservation Service Dam, a water collection pipe and three pumps. An underground cutoff wall downstream adds another layer of protection.”

Meanwhile there was another spill yesterday, December 3, 2015. Here’s a report from Sarah Rose writing for The Canon City Daily Record. Here’s an excerpt:

Thursday morning Cotter employees discovered that the pumping system shut down, CDPHE said.

“Cotter personnel then inspected the SCS pumpback line and found the location of the break,” a CDPHE email stated. “Based on the amount of time between the morning inspection and observing the 10 a.m. shutdown, Cotter estimates that approximately 500 gallons of water leaked from the pipe line. Leaked water flowed approximately 20 feet, ponded in a slight depression and infiltrated into the soil. It appears that the water stayed on Cotter property.”

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site update: Comments sought for decommission plan

From The Pueblo Chieftain:

Public comment is being sought on a Quality Assurance Project Plan designed to help health officials oversee decommissioning of the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill.

The plan establishes the requirements for environmental data collection. It can be viewed at recycle4colorado.ipower.com/Cotter/docspubreview.htm

State health officials will be accepting informal public comments until Nov. 13. Submit comments to Jennifer Opila at jennifer.opila@state.co.us.

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 http://recycle4colorado.ipower.com/Cotter/docspubreview.htm.

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

More Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site coverage here.

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.

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 http://recycle4colorado.ipower.com/Cotter/Lincoln%20Park/140922lincolnparkpublichealthassessment.pdf.

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 Regulations.gov 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.