Monday, September 7, 2009

EPA agrees to update radon emissions standards from uranium mills

The Environmental Protection Agency agreed Friday to update its standards on radon emissions from uranium mills, including Cotter Corp. in Cañon City.

Published Friday in the Federal Register, the agreement was reached following a 2008 lawsuit filed by Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste and WildEarth Guardians. The suit challenged the “failure” of EPA to strengthen nationwide radon standards at uranium mills, and the EPA agreed to conduct an expanded public process while revising and updating its radon standards.

CCAT representatives called the decisions a victory for public health.

“This agreement puts us on track to keep communities safe from radon gas emitted from the tailings at operating uranium mills,” said Sharyn Cunningham, CCAT co-chair. “For those of us living in Cañon City and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West threatened by uranium mills and in-situ uranium processing, this agreement is a huge step toward ensuring that my neighbors can breathe fresh air, free of cancer-causing radon.”

In a written statement following the agreement, CCAT and WEG said the accord should lead to stronger limits on radon emissions from uranium mills. Radon, a radioactive gas, is responsible for about 21,000 deaths annually in the United States.

The EPA now will update health standards limiting radon from operating uranium mills, which were set in place in 1989. An update to those standards, required by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, has not been done, so the two citizen groups filed suit to spur the update.

According to the EPA Web site,, uranium is ubiquitous in the earth’s crust, meaning radon is present in almost all rock and all soil and water. However, the EPA says there is no safe level of radon, because radon decay products cause lung cancer. Radon is a radioactive byproduct of uranium milling and is released by mill tailings.

Currently, the EPA standards allow radon emissions at levels more than 6,000 times higher than background level threats, according to court documents.

Locally, CCAT formed after the Cotter Corp. announced plans to import radioactive waste in 2002. The grassroots organization said the EPA lawsuit and settlement were reached with the help of the Energy Minerals Law Center, a Durango-based nonprofit law firm serving communities impacted by energy mining.

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