Friday, March 21, 2014

Colorado Mining Corp. Spills 20,000 Gallons of Uranium Waste Amid Negotiations To Clean Up 15 Million Tons More

Colorado Mining Corp. Spills 20,000 Gallons of Uranium Waste Amid Negotiations To Clean Up 15 Million Tons More

A broken pipe at a dismantled Colorado mill spilled 20,000 gallons of uranium waste just as the corporate owner is negotiating with state and federal authorities to clean up another 15 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings.

The Colorado mining and milling corporation Cotter Corp. is working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to negotiate one of the nation's longest-running cleanups in history. The agencies are expected to help Cotter clean up, gather data, and figure out what to do with 15 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings.

They could remove the tailings, which would cost more than $895 million, or bury the waste.
In the meantime, a 6-inch plastic pipe, part of a 30-year-old system on Cotter’s 2,538-acre property in Canon City, broke and spewed 20,000 gallons of uranium-laced waste.

Cotter negotiates amid spills and uranium spike by river in Canon City

Lab analysis provided by Cotter showed the spilled waste contained uranium about 94 times higher than the health standard, and molybdenum at 3,740 ppb, well above the 100-ppb standard for that metal, said Jennifer Opila, leader of the state's radioactive materials unit.

She said Cotter's system for pumping back toxic groundwater is designed so that groundwater does not leave the site, preventing any risk to the public.

In November, Cotter reported a spill of 4,000 to 9,000 gallons. That was five times more than the amount spilled in November 2012. Another spill happened in 2010.

At the neighborhood in Cañon City, the spike in uranium contamination probably reflects slow migration of toxic material from Cold War-era unlined waste ponds finally reaching the front of an underground plume, Hamrick said.

"It is a blip. It does not appear to be an upward trend. If it was, we would be looking at it," Hamrick said. "We will be working with state and EPA experts to look at the whole groundwater monitoring and remediation system."

An EPA spokeswoman agreed the spike does not appear to be part of an upward trend, based on monitoring at other wells, but she said the agency does take any elevated uranium levels seriously.

The Cotter mill, now owned by defense contractor General Atomics, opened in 1958, processing uranium for nuclear weapons and fuel. Cotter discharged liquid waste, including radioactive material and heavy metals, into 11 unlined ponds until 1978. The ponds were replaced in 1982 with two lined waste ponds. Well tests in Cañon City found contamination, and in 1984, federal authorities declared a Superfund environmental disaster.

Colorado officials let Cotter keep operating until 2011, and mill workers periodically processed ore until 2006.

A community group, Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste, has been pressing for details and expressing concerns about the Cotter site. Energy Minerals Law Center attorney Travis Stills, representing residents, said the data show "the likely expansion of the uranium plume, following the path of a more mobile molybdenum plume" into Cañon City toward the Arkansas River.
The residents deserve independent fact-gathering and a proper cleanup, Stills said.

"There's an official, decades-old indifference to groundwater protection and cleanup of groundwater contamination at the Cotter site — even though sustainable and clean groundwater for drinking, orchards, gardens and livestock remains important to present and future Lincoln Park residents," he said.

"This community is profoundly committed to reclaiming and protecting its groundwater.

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State officials say the spill was contained to Cotter’s property, but a Feb. 20 report shows groundwater uranium levels in the Canon City neighborhood of Lincoln Park “were the highest recorded for this location.”

"This isn't acceptable," Fremont County Commissioner Tim Payne said of the spill, which is Cotter's fourth since 2010. "[CDPHE] told us it is staying on Cotter's property. But 20,000 gallons? You have to worry about that getting into groundwater."

In November, Cotter reported another spill of 4,000 to 9,000 gallons.

CDPHE lab analyst Jennifer Opila says Cotter’s system pumping toxic groundwater back so that it never leaves the site – posing no risk to public drinking water.

A community group, Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste, is pressing Cotter and the state for more facts about the spills and cleanup operations.

Energy Minerals Law Center attorney Travis Stills says the public deserves to know more.