As much as 9,000 gallons of uranium-contaminated water from underground pipes spilled onto Cotter property south of Cañon City on Tuesday, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Officials say no members of the public have so far been exposed to the spill.
Cotter Corporation informed the health department of the leaking pipes on Tuesday in a “verbal report” delivered over the phone. No health department personnel have inspected the spill site, as yet, and no formal report has yet been filed. Cotter said it will let the contaminated ground dry before excavating and repairing the pipe.
From the beginning of its operations in 1958, Cotter’s uranium mill site near Cañon City has visited a plague of leaks, spills and contamination to the area. The company has racked up a long series of fines. Uranium mining is a dirty business that frequently results in environmental degradation and risks to public safety. In the past, government oversight of the Cotter property has been lax, turning on self reporting by the company. Community groups have been frustrated by the what they characterize as the meager information Cotter releases on its operations.
“We’ve got a company looking to walk away from a problem without actually cleaning it up,” said Travis E. Stills, an energy and conservation lawyer who has been working with community groups in Cañon City since the mid-2000s. Stills represents Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste on several ongoing state open records suits that seek information that passed between Cotter, the state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency concerning the uranium mill and the Lincoln Park Superfund Site, but which health department withheld from public review.
Uranium is extraordinarily toxic. The health department reports that if the pipe did in fact leak 9,000 gallons, the concentration in the water of uranium would be 834 micrograms per liter and the concentration of molybdenum, also a toxic chemical, would be 2,018 micrograms per liter. For perspective, the EPA places the health safety level of uranium at 30 micrograms per liter.
“This is water that they’ve sucked out of the ground, and they’re pumping back to evaporate,” said the health department’s Edgar Ethington.
In fact, he said, the contamination is not new. The leak comes in a pipe used to pump contaminated water from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) Dam pumpback to ponds on the Cotter property where the contamination will slowly return to solid form. He made the release sound simple.
“They got a hole in the pipe and it leaked back into the ground,” he said.
Warren Smith, community involvement manager in the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division of the department, insisted there was no danger to public health.
“There is no public health risk here, because there is no exposure to the public,” Smith said. “Health risk depends on two factors: the release and exposure. If there’s no receptor to be exposed to it, where’s the risk?”
Smith said that the health department performs regular inspections of the Cotter site. The most recent was a September inspection. Because the pipe was buried, Smith said it would be a stretch to “characterize it as an [inspection] oversight.”
Smith said it would be a serious lapse if Cotter had failed to report the spill. Inspections don’t occur often enough for the state to have happened upon the spill any time soon.
“A lot of this is performance based,” Ethington said. “You expect a breakdown from time to time. You just have to make sure the breakdown does not result in a release that gets off-site.”
The Cotter site is not operational. Most of the buildings have been demolished. Yet spills are a regular occurence. The process of closing the mill has been in the works for years, as community groups, the EPA, and Cotter see-saw through negotiations on what the cleanup will look like. That’s why the trickling information from Cotter frustrates interested locals.
“We should be getting immediate, actionable, good information on the agency’s website so the community can understand what’s going on,” said Stills. “We keep hearing back from the CDPHE that there is no problem there, and we can just leave the place and go on, without cleaning up the ground water, and without doing a full cleanup of the site.”
Stills said the community group in Cañon is working “to get some real clean-up, that doesn’t allow General Atomic, which owns Cotter, to walk away and leave a contaminated neighborhood in its wake.”