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Cotter Plans to Close Toxic Mill Site

The operator of a uranium mill that contaminated groundwater and soil at Cañon City has indicated that it will be shut down rather than refurbished.

Cotter Corp. has informed regulators it will close two toxic-waste impoundment ponds at the mill "as soon as reasonably achievable," according to a letter Cotter sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cotter, which had previously said the mill would be reopened, now has told state regulators it will stop testing for radon emissions at the site because it is "no longer an active facility" subject to regulation.

The apparent reversal, and Cotter's decision to stop testing for radon emissions, caught local leaders by surprise. The site has been designated a polluted Superfund site and Cotter has been responsible for monitoring to make sure cancer- causing radon was not escaping the facility.

Fremont County Commissioner Mike Stiehl questioned whether Cotter can stop tests. "That doesn't sound right to me."

Cotter's vice president for mill operations, John Hamrick, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Cañon City residents and environmental advocates are urging stepped-up state scrutiny. Among their concerns: whether the $14.7 million in surety bond money Colorado has required from Cotter is sufficient to ensure a proper cleanup.

"It's a little difficult to celebrate when it is not clear if they are going to have enough money, or if they are committed, to cleaning up the groundwater. I've got two contaminated wells," said Sharyn Cunningham, a leader of Citizens Against Toxic Waste.

Toxic uranium and molybdenum levels at the mill far exceed health standards, "and water just doesn't stay put. That's the problem. It flows downhill," Cunningham said.

"It flows down through the Sand Creek area (toward the Arkansas River). They need to pump that water out of the ground and clean it. But they don't want to do that because it is expensive. They want to just let it naturally clean itself, which could take 100 years," she said.

"That's just unacceptable. . . . For people who have already been exposed, it doesn't matter. It's already happened to us. But let's make sure nobody else is exposed."

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials, under an agreement with federal regulators, are charged with supervising the cleanup.

The state officials have not decided whether to require an active cleanup of groundwater or to allow the "natural attenuation" option that would leave tainted water in place, said health department spokesman Mark Salley. The state's decision "will be subject to a public process," he said.

Cotter has offered to increase bond money to $20.8 million, state records show. State health officials are discussing whether that would be sufficient to cover remediation costs.

The cleanup has lagged, with the state reporting 69 violations over the past decade (Cotter paid a penalty of $16,500 in 2006) and toxic tailings leaching into groundwater. Past efforts to "de-water" toxic waste impoundment ponds at the mill, intended to stop contamination of groundwater, have left toxic tailings exposed to the air.

"What would demolition, disposal and reclamation look like? We need to have this out in the open," said Travis Stills, managing attorney of the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center, who has represented residents at hearings. "What is at risk is a continuing stream of contamination coming off this site."

A law signed by Gov. Bill Ritter on June 8 requires uranium mill operators to clean up existing toxic messes before launching new projects.

Cotter owns uranium mines around Colorado and also faces pressure to clean up contamination at a defunct mine west of Denver. Toxic water there has contaminated a creek that flows into a Denver Water reservoir.

State natural resources officials recently fined Cotter $55,000 for violations at that mine, the Schwartzwalder. All but $2,500 has been suspended — on the condition that Cotter comply with an order to pump out contaminated water by Aug. 31.

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or bfinley@denverpost.com

View this article at http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_15810328.