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Grass-Roots Group Sues Cold War Uranium Mill Over Waste Disposal Practices

Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste, Inc. (a grass-roots group based in Canon City) filed a lawsuit against several defendants including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Cotter Corporation outraged over the state official’s approval for Cotter to dump radioactive sludge from its uranium mill into one of their two impoundment ponds.
During the Cold War, the 1958 mill was built with federal support to process yellowcake uranium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and power plants. In the twenty years after the mill was built, radioactive liquid waste was sent to 11 unlined ponds. In 1984 the site was designated by the Environmental Protection Agency for a Superfund cleanup when well tests turned up contaminated groundwater. With their operating license being renewed, Cotter turned to processing ore until about five years ago. Cotter stopped processing yellowcake uranium in 2005.
In June, Denver District Court Judge Robert Hyatt denied a motion filed by the state health department and Cotter to dismiss the residents’ lawsuit. The lawsuit claims that Cotter is dismantling the mill without an approved plan required by Colorado radiation regulations.
In addition, claims are that state regulators made an informal deal with Cotter to reduce the $43.7 million bond Cotter must submit to guarantee cleanup to $20.8 million, a far cry from the $53 million proposed by the public. Cotter’s initial cleanup bond was a mere $14.7 million, which they then agreed to increase to the $20.8 million. A Western Mining Action Project attorney representing the residents states that the bond currently in place is not enough.
According to John Hamrick, vice president for milling operations at Cotter, the sludge is about 95 percent kerosene. Kerosene was used to process the uranium. The plan is for the sludge to be mixed with a material, which Hamrick analogized as being sort of like kitty litter because it becomes solid. The new sludge neutralizes and is dumped into the impoundment pond. The health department claims the impoundment pond leaks, but Cotter disputes this allegation.
Recently, underground toxic plumes containing cancer-causing trichloroethylene have been detected moving toward the Arkansas River and Canon City. Cotter has been responsible for taking the water samples and doing the analysis and is continuing to monitor the situation. Meanwhile the old mill buildings are being decommissioned as Cotter is pondering building a new mill at the site.
To use the above stated kitty litter analogy, while Cotter may be able to make the waste neutralize and clump, the situation still stinks.