Cleaning-up a toxic legacy

Environment Colorado

Canon City – In an effort to prevent communities and taxpayers from being left on the hook with  clean-up costs of pollution from uranium operations, elected officials businesses, and advocacy groups gathered today outside the Fremont County Commissioners’ Office.

Fremont County Commissioner Mike Stiehl (R- Canon City), Bill Edrington of Royal Gorge Anglers, members of Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT) and Environment Colorado announced new legislation, the Uranium Processing Accountability Act, to ensure clean-up of uranium processing operations.

Rep. Buffie McFadyen (D- Pueblo West) and Senators Ken Kester (R-Las Animas) and Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins) are sponsoring the state legislation which is expected to be introduced in the House later this month.

“It’s time Coloradans stop paying the price for toxic uranium pollution,” said Sharyn Cunningham of CCAT. Cunningham moved to Canon City in 1994 where her family then unknowingly drank water contaminated with uranium for eight years before learning about the Cotter Corporation’s groundwater pollution issues that were identified as far back as far as 1965.

Fremont County has been struggling with clean-up of the Cotter mill for decades, and since 1984, the mill has been listed as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund site, the national priorities list for toxic waste clean-up.

Having a uranium site with ongoing problems is a challenge for Fremont County as it reviews its Master Plan and works to expand tourism opportunities outside the Royal Gorge.

“We need to be protecting long-term investment opportunities in Fremont County like tourism and recreation. Having a uranium facility with ongoing pollution problems can harm other parts of our economy,” said Commissioner Stiehl. “I’ve spent a lot of time working with Cotter on clean-up plans. I appreciate their efforts, but we need a high standard when it comes to radioactive, toxic uranium pollution.”

Bill Edrington, owner of Royal Gorge Anglers, agrees. His company operates along the Arkansas River which flows about seven miles from Cotter.

“My business depends on clean water and a clean image in Fremont County,” said Edrington. “I’ve got real concerns about the expanding groundwater pollution at Cotter.”

Cotter has also been cited with 99 violations over the last 9 years. Ongoing issues at Cotter include expanding groundwater pollution, unaddressed radon emissions (the second leading contributor of lung cancer worldwide) at tailing ponds, and onsite spills and contamination.

The issues at Cotter are not unique to uranium processing operations. In fact, uranium milling facilities often go bankrupt leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for clean-up. In Colorado alone, taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion dollars cleaning-up past uranium milling operations according to U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. EPA documents.

“Taxpayers have given uranium companies a $1 billion bailout,” said Matt Garrington, advocate with Environment Colorado. “If uranium companies want to operate in Colorado, it can’t be at the expense of taxpayers and our air and water.”

Environment Colorado and CCAT, with support from the nonprofit law firms Western Mining Action Project and Energy Minerals Law Center, brought forward the legislative idea to Rep. McFadyen in response to Cotter’s announcement last year that it plans to reopen in 2014 and the proposal by Energy Fuels for a uranium facility in western Montrose County.

More than 30 organizations and businesses in Fremont County and more than 50 organizations and businesses across the state have endorsed the legislation.