Flooding at Cotter Superfund site spurs renewed criticism of lagging cleanup
Some Cañon City-area residents say mill’s owner is flouting new Colorado law that sets deadlines for inspection reports
FRISCO — When rainstorms sent a surge of muddy debris down Sand Creek late this summer, people living near the defunct Cotter Uranium Mill were thinking, “Here we go again!”
A big 1965 flood washed radioactive sludge toward the nearby Lincoln Park neighborhood, a foothill community near Cañon City where residents have horses and apples trees in their backyards. The plume of poisoned water spread underground. Fifty years later, there are still three wells in Lincoln Park where the uranium concentrations are above state standards set to protect human health.
This year’s late summer rainstorms gummed up critical pumps and pipes, part of a system built to prevent radioactive waste from escaping the polluted 2,600-acre Cotter property, which has been designated as a high priority federal Superfund cleanup site for the past quarter century.
The fact that a series of checks on dams and underground barriers showed they apparently worked the way they’re supposed to during the recent floods is small comfort to some Lincoln Park residents who worry about continued health risks and complain that state and federal regulators are still dragging their feet on the long-mandated cleanup.
“I realize the surface water is getting captured pretty well, but we’ve asked for better monitoring of groundwater, and we’ve been refused over and over again,” said Lincoln Park resident Sharyn Cunningham.
“We’ve asked them to do scientific studies to show there is no underground movement of water and they’ve refused numerous times,” she added, noting that uranium levels in the groundwater on the Cotter property are “horrendously high.”
In the wake of the most recent flooding, concerned locals say Cotter and the government officials tasked with overseeing the cleanup seemed to be defying a new state law that sets deadlines for inspections and reporting.
Cunningham and other residents want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to lean on the Cotter Corporation harder to accelerate the cleanup effort. The company is a Denver-based subsidiary of General Atomics, a corporation with lucrative federal nuclear contracts. Cotter owns or controls 15 uranium and vanadium mines in southwest Colorado with an estimated 100 million pounds of ore. Watchdogs say the company has plenty of money to pay for a cleanup, and that big corporations — especially ones with government contracts — ought to play by the same simple kindergarten rules that apply to the rest of us.
“You make a mess, you clean it up,” said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney representing Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste. At the Cotter site — which is so close to Cañon City and upstream from the Arkansas River — the best option would be to dig up most of the toxic radioactive waste and move it to a geologically stable and remote site where it would pose the least threat to people and the environment, watchdogs say.
The mill started producing uranium oxide, or yellowcake in 1958 as part of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup. The concentrated uranium powder is the raw material for fissionable nuclear fuel. According to Cunningham, who curates an extensive library of documents related to the site, some of the waste came from the Manhattan Project, America’s WWII atom bomb effort.
Up until 1980, Cotter dumped radioactive waste into unlined ponds. It wasn’t until 1988, 30 years after Cotter started operation, that the state required the company to build a groundwater barrier to trap tainted water and pump it back up into evaporation ponds on its property.
Along with uranium, toxic materials at the Cotter site include radium, polonium, thorium and heavy metals like mercury, molybdenum, thorium and radioactive lead. Intermittently, Cotter processed those materials with other toxic chemicals, including nitric acid and hydrochloric acid — all combining into a poisonous brew. Many of the pollutants are known to have human health impacts, including an increased cancer risk.
“It makes fracking fluid look good enough to drink,” Stills said.
In 2010, monitoring revealed a potential new threat — volatile organic compounds had started showing up in the site’s groundwater. Specifically, testing detected Trichloroethylene, a known cancer-causing chemical used mainly as an industrial solvent, suggesting the chemical may have been introduced to the water as Cotter dismantled some of the old facilities on the site.
An updated federal health assessment completed earlier this month details potential health risks linked with exposure to the toxic materials stored at Cotter. The report was published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and includes a detailed timeline of the decades-long, on-and-off efforts to decontaminate property.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment defends its work overseeing the cleanup, including diligent groundwater monitoring that shows the plume of contaminated groundwater beneath Lincoln Park has shrunk in recent years.
“We take our mission to protect public health and environment seriously,” said Warren Smith, the state’s liaison at the Cotter site. Smith said two inspections, on Aug. 25 and Sept. 23, showed no sign that contaminated water leaked off the property. Aside from the pumpback failure, he said the rest of the site’s containment system, including key dams, worked as intended during the recent floods.
“Cotter is required to report these incidents and they have been.”
Smith said there are three wells in Lincoln Park where the uranium concentration is above the state standard of 30 micrograms per liter. The concentrations in these wells are less than 40 micrograms per liter.
Environmental concerns about the Cotter Mill are nothing new. The state started demanding a cleanup way back in 1983 by filing a complaint under the Superfund law, formally called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.
The Cotter Corporation challenged the move in court, setting the tone for decades of mistrust. Years of missteps and withheld information has done nothing to convince residents that the company is meeting its cleanup obligation, Stills said. This year’s breakdown of the pumpback system is just the latest in a long list of snafus at the mill site, including previous pipe failures 2010, 2012 and 2013.
“The same people have been making the same mistakes for decades,” said Stills, noting that the string of contaminated waste releases shows that state and federal oversight have been lax at best. As he sees it, Cotter has been gaming the system for 30 years, and that state health officials have played along.
“To me, it suggests consistent contempt by CDPHE staff for the community perspective,” Stills said.
The biggest concern is that the mill’s entire aging containment system could be vulnerable to catastrophic failure that could put thousands of people at risk. The site is about 1.5 miles north of Cañon City. The closest neighbor is a quarter-mile away. About 6,000 people live within about a two-mile radius of the mill, and about 20,000 people live within five miles.
In July, Cotter Corporation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and EPA signed a deal that spells out Cotter’s legal obligation to start working on a final cleanup plan. The agreement is a required step in the federal Superfund process. The public can comment on the proposed agreement until October 27 at Regulations.gov or in writing to by contacting EPA Enforcement Specialist Virginia Phillips.
“EPA is aware of recent incidents involving the pumpback system at the Cotter facility, including incidents related to flooding events and an occurrence of pipe damage which has since been repaired,” said Rich Mylott, a spokesman for the EPA, which will work with the CDPHE to investigate the pumpback system breakdown.
Cunningham and other residents are skeptical that the Cotter Corporation will do a thorough cleanup unless state and federal officials keep a close, diligent watch.
“The community doesn’t trust Cotter and CDPHE to do these things in private,” she said. “Two years ago, they promised us a roadmap toward cleanup, and we haven’t put one foot on that road yet.”
The Superfund cleanup deal may also have some loopholes.
Watchdogs want the state and feds to investigate what other companies besides Cotter may have contributed to contamination at the mine. That would help identify all the toxic materials at the site. They also want Cotter and government regulators to gather more detailed information on groundwater movement, including a tracer study, which involves adding a chemical marker to the water upstream, then monitoring when and where it appears downstream — a common way of tracking pollutants.
The EPA and the CDPHE are now on the same page on the Cotter cleanup so Cunningham is more hopeful that there will, someday, be a final resolution, said Cunningham, who lives less than a mile from the contaminated site.
Until then, she plans to keep watching the agencies closely. History has shown, she said, that somebody needs to keep watch and keep pressing for completion of the cleanup in the face of Cotter’s continued resistance and delays. Both Stills and Cunningham said they think the company has too much sway with regulators, who seem to be more responsive Cotter than to residents living near its mill’s mess.
“You just get up every day and do what you can,” Cunningham said. “This is a terribly contaminated site, and somebody has to make sure the authorities in charge are doing the right thing and are not just being influenced by Cotter.”
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