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A retention pond at the Cotter Mill Superfund site south of Cañon City on Feb. 10, 2023. Colorado Legacy Land, the company overseeing the remediation of the site, says it is insolvent and is abandoning the project. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The company responsible for cleanup work at two Colorado sites contaminated by uranium mining and milling is insolvent and will stop work at the end of the month. Now state and federal agencies are scrambling to ensure the toxic Cotter Uranium Mill site in Cañon City and Schwartzwalder Mine outside of Golden are secure and won’t further contaminate surrounding areas after Colorado Legacy Land departs.

The sudden shutdown, announced Tuesday night during the monthly meeting of a Community Advisory Group in Cañon City, frustrated neighbors of the Lincoln Park/Cotter Superfund site that includes the Cotter mill acquired in 2018 by Colorado Legacy Land. The company also acquired the uranium mine outside of Golden. 

Both were owned by Cotter Corp., now an affiliate of General Atomics, which remains responsible for the Superfund site that was designated nearly 40 years ago. The site includes the mill and nearby residential areas where the groundwater and soil was contaminated with radionuclides and heavy metals.

Cotter officials did not respond to request for comment on Wednesday.

Colorado Legacy Land’s goal was to take over contaminated properties, oversee the cleanup and find eco-friendly future uses for the land, according to its website.

But as Cañon City community members worked frantically last week to meet the latest deadline for public comment on the work plan for the mill site on the southern edge of the city, the company ran out of money.

Rebecca Gerhart, the Environmental Protection Agency’s remedial project manager for the Lincoln Park Superfund site, said the agency and Colorado Department of Health and Environment learned late last week of the company’s financial woes.

At the beginning of the regularly scheduled Community Advisory Group meeting she announced that the agenda was changed because of some news.

“That news is that late last week CLL informed EPA and CDPHE that the company was financially insolvent and would be unable to fulfill its obligations,” Gerhart said, noting the company had responsibilities to complete Superfund studies and develop a work plan as well as health and safety responsibilities under the state-issued radioactive materials license.

“There’s got to be a better way”

The impact at the Schwartzwalder Mine, which has contaminated the Ralston Creek watershed west of Denver with arsenic, radium and uranium, was not discussed Tuesday night. That cleanup is overseen by several agencies, including CDPHE and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

When asked Wednesday morning about the status of the mine, DRMS issued this statement:

“DRMS was made aware of the Colorado Legacy Land situation last week. While we are monitoring the situation and weighing options permitted under our statute, the surface reclamation DRMS oversees at the site is nearly complete. DRMS also holds a $7.6 million bond which can be utilized, if necessary, to ensure there will be continued operation and monitoring of the water treatment facility at the site. Beyond that we will work with our partners at CDPHE and EPA to ensure the site protects public health and the environment over the long term.”

That bond is separate from financial assurances held by the state health department, including $8.9 million for the Superfund site in Cañon City.

A sign denoting the Colorado Legacy Land remediation project at the site of the Cotter Mill Superfund site. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The announcement at Tuesday’s meeting so stunned community members listening in a meeting room and over Zoom and Facebook that a call for questions was met with silence.

When the questions did start to flow, many could not be answered because of legal constraints or because it is unknown how work will proceed. The back and forth revealed the complexity of the situation.

“The immediate focus of the agencies is to secure on-site operations,” said Jim Grice, radiation program manager for the health department’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division. That work includes security at the site and ensuring that water management continues so that there is no further contamination seeping off the mill site.

Grice said he and other CDPHE staff would visit the site this week to further assess what will be needed for the agencies to take over in the short term. 

EPA attorney Max Greenblum said during the meeting that Cotter remains the responsible party, and that the Superfund laws require the EPA to oversee the responsible party. 

He tried to assure the advisory group that the EPA and CDPHE remain engaged and that the immediate priority is to secure the uranium mill site and ensure that contamination does not spread.

But community members were discouraged.

“This community has lived with this contamination site for decades,” said Emily Tracy, who has been involved with community groups fighting for cleanup for years. “It is just so concerning. There’s got to be a better way.”

Uranium contamination detected in water wells in 1970

Cotter began processing uranium at the mill in 1958 under a contract to provide uranium oxide, or yellow cake, for the Atomic Energy Commission, and expanded over the next several years. Tailings were stored in 11 ponds, only three of which were lined. In 1965, a massive flood washed mill tailings into the adjacent Lincoln Park, an area of small farms and orchards, according to a CDPHE timeline.

In 1968, the mill began receiving tailings containing radioactive residue from the Manhattan Project, the secretive World War II project that produced the atomic bomb. By 1970, the alarm was raised about contamination of water wells in Lincoln Park, which was designated as a Superfund site in 1984.

The mill continued to operate intermittently until 2011 and millions of tons of waste remain buried at the site.

The Cotter Mill Superfund site on the south edge of Cañon City will be temporarily managed by state and federal agencies. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Residents asked about the $8.9 million guarantee that Colorado required when Colorado Legacy Land took over the site and the related state Radioactive Materials License. The answer to that question lies in the legal entanglements of negotiating with an insolvent company and Cotter, which paid Colorado Legacy Land an undisclosed amount to take over the land.

Also, the EPA did not require surety bonds because the work plan still has not been finalized. 

Jeri Fry, who co-founded the Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste in 2001, said after the meeting that the ongoing remedial investigation to identify what work needs to be done at the Superfund site has been dragged out for 12 years, and they were just at the point at developing the work plan. An initial remedial investigation in 1986 took two years and led to some actions, including providing city water to Lincoln Park residents and removal of soil along train tracks where uranium had been transported in open train cars.

Fry said Cotter worked on the second investigation from 2011 to 2018 before turning it over to Colorado Legacy Land. 

“Actually, Cotter pretty much stopped work on their RI (remedial investigation) in 2016 so (Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste) held a public meeting to gain public input for the RI we thought was being conducted,” she wrote in an email late Tuesday. “Only to find, in hindsight, that Cotter was negotiating with CLL to pay them to take ownership of the site whereupon, in 2018, we started all over again. We have been there every step of the way.”

Fry called the process broken, complaining that federal Superfund rules don’t require the EPA to demand a bond until a work plan is approved.

“It has turned us into an overburdened community because the process can be actively protracted and result in no cleanup,” she wrote, “… but lots of documents.”

Colorado Legacy Land CEO Jim Harrington was asked not to join Tuesday’s meeting until the advisory group was asked if they wanted to hear from him. They did not object, but most, including Fry, left abruptly as they waited for him to join on Zoom.

“I’m not interested in hearing from Jim Harrington,” said Carol Dunn, a long-time activist. “He knew this was coming. I do appreciate the agencies that are sticking with us.”

Ultimately, Harrington, who could not be reached Wednesday, offered no statement because he said he didn’t know “what’s been said to this point.”

The meeting room where several community members had gathered had gone dark, and those remaining on Zoom were silent when the moderator asked if anyone had questions for Harrington.

And with that, the meeting was adjourned.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @suemcmillin