Cotter Corp. refuses to pay state fine for uranium contamination

A uranium mining and milling company for years blamed for contamination in the Cañon City area is now refusing to pay state fines levied for failing to clean up a toxic pond threatening Denver’s water supply.

According to letters (pdf) obtained by the Colorado Independent, Cotter Corp. – which owns the Cotter Mill near Cañon City – has declined to pay a $55,000 fine for uranium pollution 1,200 times state standards contaminating Ralston Creek, a feeder for Ralston Reservoir, which is Denver Water and City of Arvada drinking water supply.

“Cotter reserves all of its rights to administrative and judicial review as provided under Colorado law, and Cotter has exercised and will continue to exercise such rights as necessary,” the company wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to the state Mined Land Reclamation Board (MLRB). “Accordingly, Cotter respectfully declines to remit the penalty under the MLRB Order.”

The MLRB answered on Sept. 16 that it believes Cotter is in violation of state law and scheduled an enforcement hearing before the board on Nov. 17-18 in Denver.

State environmental groups warily monitoring an attempted uranium mining resurgence in Colorado condemned Cotter’s resistance to either cleaning up the pond near Ralston Creek – which is located at its now defunct Schwartzwalder uranium mine in Jefferson County — or paying the MLRB fine.

“The uranium mining industry in Colorado argues that new regulations are in place since the last uranium boom to protect communities,” said Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project. “Cotter’s actions in openly defying those regulations shows that the industry still has a long way to go before it can be trusted to protect our water and air.”

Activists were also critical of Cotter’s refusal to continue radon testing at the Cotter Mill in Cañon City, instead opting to shutter the facility instead of pursuing plans to refurbish it for stepped-up milling operations. The mill is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Clean-up site.

A Washington, DC law firm sent a letter to the EPA, also on Sept. 10, informing the federal agency of Cotter’s plans to cease radon flux testing, which some area residents say is critical to detecting future cancer-causing pollution levels at the mill.

“Cotter should be spending their money on cleaning up its mess in Cañon City instead of DC lawyers,” said Sharyn Cunningham of the local Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT). “Cotter is playing political football with our health by refusing to test for the rate of radon pollution entering our community.”

Cunningham, who says two drinking water wells on her property have been contaminated by nearby milling operations, was a big grassroots backer of a law passed by the Colorado Legislature last session requiring uranium processing operations to clean up past contamination before being approved for future milling operations.

In the southwest part of the state, activists and local residents are concerned the first milling operation in the past 30 years – currently being reviewed for approval by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — could create a similar toxic mess and would lack the resources to clean it up if things go wrong.

Energy Fuels Inc., a Toronto, Ontario-based company is seeking state approval for the Piñon Ridge Mill in Montrose County in far western Colorado, but some critics question the financing of the operation.

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