Cotter legacy continues to linger over modern uranium mining, milling proposals

In the fall of 2009, a Cotter Corp. representative attended a Montrose County hearing on the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill in the Paradox Valley, asking officials to approve the facility so that mines his company still owns and operates in western Colorado will have a much closer processing facility.

Now the General Atomics subsidiary is being held up as the poster child for improper toxic waste storage, overly cozy relationships with state regulators, and a culture of delay and litigation that has stymied cleanup efforts at its defunct Cotter Mill near Cañon City.

The Paradox Valley in western Colorado.
“The [Paradox Valley] area is nice, but this county was built on natural resources,” Cotter Corp.’s Glen Williams told the Montrose County commissioners in 2009, acknowledging his company’s issues in Cañon City but adding that technology has improved so dramatically since the Cotter Mill’s heyday in the 50s, 60s and 70s that the Piñon Ridge mill should get the nod.

Piñon Ridge is being proposed by a Canadian company, Energy Fuels, which has made repeated assurances that tougher environmental standards, the use of liners in waste storage ponds, and improved technology in general make the proposed facility a much safer bet than the Cotter Mill. Energy Fuels ultimately got its approvals, both from the county and the state.

Still, critics point to fairly recent examples of technology lapses at the Cotter Mill, an EPA Superfund Cleanup site that’s being managed by the state. They argue Piñon Ridge could be a similar disaster in the making and have sued both the county and the state to stop the project, and the nearby supply of ore was recently thrown into question.

A federal judge last week put a halt to the U.S. Department of Energy’s move to expand the Uranium Lease Management Program (ULMP) on 42 square miles of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in southwestern Colorado near the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill. The judge ruled the DOE acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in approving 31 new leases, failing to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The DOE now must conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and then apply to have the judge’s injunction lifted. The DOE also can’t issue any new lease or allow any drilling or mining activity at the 43 mines approved in the ULMP – including some Cotter mines. Reclamation of old mines was also an issue in the judge’s 53-page decision, and the coalition of environmental groups that sued was concerned about toxins leaching into the nearby Dolores and San Miguel Rivers.

“This is an important ruling that will help ensure that any uranium mining and milling that may take place in the Dolores River watershed is protective of the environment and human health,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, adding it’s time for the federal government to “take responsible steps to disclose the full range of impacts of mining uranium on public lands in combination with the impacts from Energy Fuels’ proposed uranium mill.”

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