Published on Friday October 28 2011 (AEST)Cotter Corp.'s uranium mill near Cañon City plans to restart operations using ore shipped in from New Mexico, according to a letter filed with the state.
But Gov. John Hickenlooper said a bill passed by the state legislature last year likely prohibits Cotter from beginning a new project until it cleans up contamination left by Cold War-era uranium processing.
Additionally, Hickenlooper said he will dispatch his chief of staff, Roxane White, to the Cotter Mill next month to evaluate cleanup efforts at the site declared a Superfund environmental disaster in 1984.
"This is very important to the people down there," he said. "I'm definitely looking at it, and Roxane is looking at it, so we can understand it in some detail and assure ourselves that there isn't risk to human health or the environment."
The Denver Post reported Sunday that state and independent reports over a 30-year period showed Cotter's two tailing ponds south of Cañon City are leaking. Additionally, a state engineer found in 2004 that the ponds were "unusable" for hazardous-waste disposal. Even so, the state — in charge of supervising the cleanup — is sticking to a plan developed in 1969 to keep the waste there permanently.
Cotter Mill manager John Hamrick did not return phone calls.
Cotter is currently demolishing its buildings and disposing of the debris in one of the leaking tailing ponds. In a June 24 letter, Cotter said it intended to "maintain its Radioactive Materials License for the purpose of processing Mount Taylor ore."
For the company to reopen, Hickenlooper said, it would have to obtain a new license, which would require a "very public process with a lot of public input."
Cotter's proposal appears to contradict plans made by Rio Grande Resources Corp., owner of the Mount Taylor Mine west of Albuquerque. Cotter and Rio Grande are owned by San Diego-based General Atomics.
Rio Grande told the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008 it intended to mill uranium not at Cotter but at a planned mill near the New Mexico mine, records show. The company did not return a call and e-mail from The Post.
Western Mining Action Project attorney Jeff Parsons said he believes Cotter is trying to drag out final shutdown of the mill to avoid what are expected to be detailed reviews of the cleanup. Because the mill is a Superfund site, the EPA must sign off on final plans.
"This is Cotter's way of trying to push off the serious work, and the state is enabling them by not looking into the claim about Mount Taylor," said Parsons, who is representing residents suing to force Cotter to post a larger bond to guarantee cleanup of land and water near the mill.
Although the mill and adjacent neighborhood were declared a Superfund site 27 years ago, new pollution has recently been discovered, and the state still doesn't have detailed data on groundwater contamination around the mill, said Steve Tarlton, the state health-department radiation-unit manager who has overseen the cleanup for the state since 2003.
The state's estimate for cleanup costs was $43 million; however, it has permitted Cotter to put up only $20.8 million to guarantee the work will be completed.
The goal is for the U.S. Department of Energy to take the site over from the state, but first the site must be stabilized and cleaned up, which state regulators said is at least 10 years away.
Despite being owned by General Atomics, one of the country's top defense contractors, Cotter has in the past cited financial issues and threatened to walk away from the Superfund site.
State Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, said regulators are in a tough spot.
"I think they're walking a tightrope," he said. "A bad solution would be to chase a company away from the table that's moving in the right direction."