Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mopping up uranium's mess: States push to clean up mine and mill sites

Cotter Corporation uranium mill

Comment:  No to uranium mining and milling, it will ruin our water, land and our health plus taxpayers will pay for all the problems the uranium mining and milling will bring!
News - July 09, 2010 by Nathan Rice

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. "

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.
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.

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.

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