Charge State With Lacking Adequate Resources to Oversee New Mill
MONTROSE COUNTY – Two days before the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began a new public hearing process over Energy Fuels, Inc.’s application for a radioactive materials license to build the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, a group of residents who live near the Cotter Uranium Mill/superfund site in Cañon City sent a letter to Judge Richard Dana over concerns about the state’s ability to provide adequate over a new uranium mill.
The letter from the Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste group, a nonprofit organization, was sent to Dana on Monday. Dana is presiding over the hearing, which began in Nucla Wednesday evening.
The members of the group, who live near the Superfund site in Cañon City, stated in their letter that their concerns about the new Piñon Ridge mill stem from years of experience in dealing with CDPHE regulators on the Cotter Mill cleanup, which has been managed by the state since the late 1980s.
“Our biggest concern is that our state does not have the staff or the resources devoted to regulating a site like this, and that is where a lot of problems will come from,” the group’s co-chair Sharyn Cunningham said in a telephone interview Monday. “If the mill is built, and once they find contamination – and they will – our concern is whether or not the people living nearby will be protected by the state agencies.
“I do not believe they will be protected.”
Members of the group said their worries about the CDPHE’s ability to oversee the proposed mill date back to 2002. That’s when the organization of health-care workers, teachers and business professionals formed, in an effort to block a plan to import toxic waste from a Superfund site in New Jersey to the Cotter Mill in Colorado.
“When CCAT began to fight the proposal to import radioactive waste, some of us who live near the mill learned that pollution from the facility had contaminated our well water – a fact that officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment failed to effectively warn residents about for years,” the letter to Dana stated.
Since 2002, the group has worked with Democrats and Republicans in the Colorado General Assembly to pass a series of legislative efforts to protect communities from uranium mills. Key components of those legislative efforts include requiring the state to increase public participation and forcing the owners of uranium mills to clean up their contamination before they seek approval to process new materials.
“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to work collaboratively with the CDPHE over the cleanup of the Cotter Mill, we have seen radiation regulators dismiss our concerns, forcing our group to take CDPHE to court in a pending case aimed at ensuring that meaningful cleanup is achieved and financial liability stays where it belongs – with the industry,” the letter stated.
“Our group, after watching this since 2002, and there were others watching from the 1960s, we feel like the state has handled Cotter with kid gloves,” Cunningham said. “There were few fines, and they allowed long delays in requiring cleanup or even investigation contamination. There is not enough staff or resources at the radiation management unit at the health department that is devoted to this uranium mill. Based on what we experience, it really doesn’t bode well for how a new uranium mill will be regulated.”
While Cunningham said a recent Denver Post investigative story raised questions about the decades-long management of the Cotter Mill, decisions in recent years also led the group to worry about the state’s ability to regulate the Piñon Ridge Mill. According to CCAT, in the past 10 years, the CDPHE allowed the owner of the Cotter Mill to:
• Wait 20 years to conduct a comprehensive survey of well water owners who lived in areas tainted by pollution from the Cotter Mill. In 2008, seven families were found to be using wells tainted by pollution from the mill for all domestic purposes because of the CDPHE’s lack of institutional controls.
• Delay the remediation of high concentrations of uranium in groundwater under a nearby golf course. Company documents reveal that regulators have known about the contamination since 1979, but it has still not been remediated.
• Dump 90,000 gallons of radioactive sludge and solvents into a 157-acre impoundment pond that the agency acknowledged was leaking in June 2007.
• Proceed with the dumping of toxic chemicals and radioactive waste at the mill even though the state knows that dangerous levels of uranium concentrations in groundwater already exist at the mill.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want these Western Slope communities to have to go through what we have gone through,” the letter stated. “These communities can see many jobs that are not subject to the booms and busts of uranium mining from remediating old and abandoned uranium mines, some of which once fed the Cotter Mill, are still in Cotter's control, and are in a similar state of contamination and disrepair as its now-defunct mill.”
The hearings in Nucla, which began Wednesday, are the result of a district judge’s ruling that found CDPHE radiation regulators violated federal law by in the first hearing. Colorado regulators are tasked with the oversight of uranium mills through an agreement with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.