Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mill [With History Of Environmental Contamination] Might Again Process Uranium [in CO]


A uranium mill in Cañon City with a history of environmental contamination has asked the state for permission to refurbish and restart its uranium processing plant.

From 1958 to 2006, the Cotter Mill processed uranium into yellowcake, the raw material for nuclear power plant fuel rods. It employed 121 people at its 1970s peak, but the post-Three Mile Island collapse of the uranium market forced its gradual shutdown.

In an era before strong environmental regulations, uranium tailings were simply tossed in unlined pits, which contaminated the water supply of a nearby subdivision.

The mill and surrounding area are a federal Superfund site, a designation for the nation's most severe environmental hazards. Cleanup continues.

In a March 31 letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Cotter Corp. officials said they intend to bring the mill back online by 2014, with uranium mined in northwest New Mexico.

The company had been considering the move for more than a year, because of a resurgence in nuclear power, particularly in Asia, that had driven uranium prices up.

"Right now, the price is higher than what our costs are per pound. So yes, we're interested in making a go of it," said John Hamrick, vice president of milling for Denver-based Cotter. It would cost up to $200 million to get the mill running.

The mill would employ 80 people and process up to 1,500 tons of uranium a day, generating an equal amount of waste and tailings, which would be disposed of on-site.

Hamrick said disposal methods have changed from the mill's early days, and storage pits will have multiple layers to prevent leakage.

Most of the contamination occurred before the plant was rebuilt in 1979, though Cotter was cited by the state last summer for radioactive contamination at an adjacent golf course, which was traced to leaking storage tanks from more recent operations. The company last year was also ordered to pay $30,000 in fines for the deaths of 40 geese and ducks harmed by a kerosene spill in 2005, and the year before fought unsuccessfully to try to import radioactive waste from New Jersey.

"Of course we're not happy that an industry that created a Superfund site, that has continued to contaminate over the last 25 years, is now going to be approved to build a new mill and continue for another 25 years," said Sharyn Cunningham, a nearby resident and co-chairwoman of the residents group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste.

She said the mill is too close to Lincoln Park, the semi-rural subdivision that had its wells contaminated by the plant. Cotter paid to hook up residents - some of whom blame Cotter for their health problems - to municipal water lines.

Before it can resume operations, Cotter must prove it can operate without further contamination.

"That is our challenge, to be able to demonstrate, not only through word but through deed, that we can be responsible operators," Hamrick said. "Hopefully, our recent history can weigh in that we have been doing things that are addressing some of the legacy contamination issues of the past as we prepare for the future."

The company expects to submit an application to modify its license in 2011. Two public hearings will be held, the Fremont County commissioners will weigh in and the state will make a decision in the fall of 2012, said Steve Tarlton, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's radiation management unit.

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