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A series of buildings in an open landscape.
The Cotter Mill Superfund site in Fremont County on April 18. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CAÑON CITY — After a two-month scramble to get back on track with remediation plans for a southern Colorado Superfund site where more than 5 million tons of radioactive materials are buried, state and federal officials recently tried to reassure residents that the site is secure and being maintained and told them a new assessment of the risks to people and the environment is underway.

The April 18 update was met with relief that work wasn’t halted, but also a healthy dose of skepticism about whether the new plans would reverse years of setbacks at one of the nation’s most complex and delay-prone toxic cleanup sites.

“The whole plan and the corporate structure beneath it feels really creaky,” said Jeri Fry, a longtime activist and member of the Community Advisory Group, or CAG, for the Lincoln Park/Cotter Superfund site south of Cañon City. The former uranium mill site and the surrounding neighborhood was declared a Superfund site in 1984. 

“But they (Environmental Protection Agency) are trying hard to nurture the environmental justice side of what they do and that’s where my optimism lies right now,” Fry said. “They are working in the trenches with the community.”

CAG Chairwoman Emily Tracy said she has many questions about holding Cotter Corp. responsible, whether changes recently made in the process will help or hinder progress, and potential conflicts of interest among critical players. 

“I think we’d like to be cautiously optimistic — but I have to say I’m not quite there yet,” she wrote in an email.

Lincoln Park Community Advisory Group member Jeri Fry, third from right, speaks to a group of environmental experts during a tour of the Cotter Mill Superfund site on April 18 in Cañon City. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The latest setback came in late February when Colorado Legacy Land, the company responsible for cleanup at the site and at a uranium mine near Golden, told the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and EPA officials that it was insolvent and would cease work. The announcement came as agencies were reviewing CLL’s draft remedial investigation report, a critical point in developing a plan for site cleanup. The plan was rejected Feb. 28 by the EPA, which cited numerous deficiencies.

Since then, the EPA and CDPHE have taken several actions:

  • CDPHE has cited Colorado Legacy Land for violating the Colorado Radiation Control Act and is taking action to take payment of $22 million in warranty bonds that CLL posted for work at the site.
  • CDPHE also has retained Ensero Solutions, which was a contractor for Colorado Legacy Land and whose CEO, Jim Harrington, is the primary agent for insolvent company, to continue site operations such as water management and inspections to April 28. Once the bond funds are deposited in Colorado’s decommissioning fund, CDPHE expects to contract with Ensero to continue work, said Jim Grice, the health department’s radiation program manager.
  • Air monitoring systems have been added at four locations on the former mill property and a fifth monitor is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood just north of the site. Colorado Legacy Land had ceased air monitoring in recent weeks, according to a violation order issued by CDPHE.
  • The EPA has contracted with SRC Inc., a nonprofit research and development company based in Syracuse, New York, to complete a Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment Work Plan. The draft report, expected this summer, is a large component of the stalled Remedial Investigation report.
  • Officials from the EPA’s New Jersey-based National Environmental Response Team, who will direct the SRC contract work, toured the Superfund site April 18 and then attended the April Community Advisory Group meeting in the afternoon.
  • EPA attorneys are in discussions with attorneys for Cotter, which ran milling operations from 1958 to 2011, on how the company plans to resume responsibility for the site as required under previous agreements, EPA attorney Max Greenblum said. Cotter is owned by San Diego-based General Atomics.
  • The EPA has notified the owner of a defunct golf course adjacent to the uranium mill site that it should not “engage in earth-moving activities” on the property. At a previous meeting, a representative of a radio-controlled aircraft group said he’d been given permission to put a club runway on the land and was worried that he had been using a bulldozer on contaminated land.

Schwartzwalder Mine also a problem

During his presentation about steps taken at the Cañon City site, Grice mentioned the crossover with the Schwartzwalder Mine northwest of Golden that also was owned by Cotter and turned over to Colorado Legacy Land in 2018. CDPHE has issued notices of violation at the mine and is in talks with Colorado Legacy Land and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to bring activities into compliance, he said.

The mine contaminated the Ralston Creek watershed west of Denver with arsenic, radium and uranium, but has mostly been cleaned up. However, a water treatment plant operates from May to October and the mine safety division holds a $7.6 million bond to ensure that it runs in perpetuity.

The radioactive materials separated from the water come under jurisdiction of the CDPHE-issued radioactive materials license held by Colorado Legacy Land. Such waste must be accounted for and disposed of in accordance with the license, Grice said.

Amber Bacom, an SRC toxicologist based in Denver, left, .will lead SRC’s efforts to aid in the cleanup of the Cotter Mill Superfund site since Colorado Legacy Land announced it was insolvent last winter. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A mine safety division spokesman said Thursday that the agency, Colorado Legacy Land and the financial warranty company have agreed on a path to keep the water treatment facility operating this year. 

“If all the conditions are not met by May 12, the division will initiate permit revocation and forfeiture of the bond,” he said in a statement. “If the conditions are met, then the water treatment plant will have financing to run for the May to October season.”

Because Colorado Legacy Land has not declared bankruptcy and continues to seek funding, the agencies could allow it to resume work at either of the sites, which it owns, if it is able to.  However, Grice said, the company would not have access to the cash from forfeiture of the bonds and likely would have to post another warranty bond or cash deposit.

Fry said she is concerned about Colorado Legacy Land’s potential return because it has done little in its five years of ownership to advance the cleanup in Cañon City. And documents that it has produced, including the critical draft of the Remedial Investigation report that will drive what happens, have been rejected or repeatedly sent back for revisions.

“Why would you want them to come back?” she said in an interview.

She and Tracy said CAG members also are concerned about Harrington’s roles in Ensero and Colorado Legacy Land. Grice said CDPHE is aware of the dual roles and that its contract with Ensero has not involved Harrington. 

Ensero President Janet Peters confirmed Monday that Harrington is not involved in contract negotiations with CDPHE on behalf of Ensero, and said the company has “mechanisms to deal with conflict of interest, perceived or real.”

She also said she could not comment about the work because of the ongoing contract negotiations.

While the work has veered from the normal path of a remedial investigation, starting the human health risk assessment was the quickest way to keep moving forward, said Rebecca Gerhart, the EPA manager for the site. SRC has done similar work for the EPA and can step in quickly, she said. 

“We didn’t want to stand up here and tell you all that you had to wait another 12 months for work to restart,” she told the CAG members at the April 18 meeting.

The assessment will evaluate such things as the risk of exposure to people to contaminants, what the contaminants are and where they pose a risk to people and the environment, and what data collection methods have and should be considered, said Will Folland, an EPA risk assessor.

Amber Bacom, an SRC toxicologist based in Denver, is the task lead for the Cotter Superfund site, and was on the recent site tour for the EPA that was led by Fry. She and Kelly O’Neal, a member of the New Jersey team, took photos throughout the tour and Bacom took copious notes.   

“It’s very helpful to see the site,” O’Neal said. “It helps us put it in perspective.”

Groundwater flow still unmapped

Gerhart told those on the tour that no one knows how fractured the earth might be under the mill site, where radioactive waste and contaminated buildings and equipment are buried. Nor is there a clear understanding of the groundwater flow.

“We all want to know the nature and extent of the contamination,” she told the tour group.

Fremont County residents are eager to know that too. As word spread during the recent upheaval, more people — including Larry Norris from the radio-controlled aircraft club — have attended CAG meetings, and more are watching on Facebook Live and Zoom.

Caryl Schrab and Al Sinnemaki came to the April meeting after Schrab took classes about the Superfund site and uranium contamination at the recent Senior Mini College in Cañon City.

The Lincoln Park area of Cañon City, shown in this Feb. 25 photo, has been greatly affected by the environmental impact of the Cotter Mine Superfund site. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We can see the golf course from our house, and I’d never even heard the term Superfund,” Schrab said after the meeting, noting that real estate agents and others never mentioned potential contamination when they bought the house a few years ago.

Although they’re on city water they believe they should’ve been told about possible air and soil contamination because they are so close to the old mill site.

Sinnemaki also was amazed that he was able to drive right up to the old Cotter Mill guard shack with no warning before he got to a sign warning of hazards.

“They should close off that road,” he said.

The lack of signs indicating a Superfund site or radioactive contamination has long riled CAG members, who have asked repeatedly for signs warning people about the contamination. Officials reiterated at the most recent meeting that the EPA cannot require the landowner to put up signs.

“If the laws aren’t serving the people, what do we do about that?” Fry asked. “It’s our responsibility as a community to step forward and give you the tools you need.”

Tracy, who’s also a city council member, took it another step.

“Local governments and landowners can figure out signage.”

U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat whose district includes Fremont County, also has taken notice of the protracted efforts to create a cleanup plan for the Superfund site and to increase public awareness of the contamination issues. 

Pettersen, who was elected in November, visited an overlook recently while she was in Cañon City to open an office in the rural part of the newly redrawn House District 7 that stretches from Jefferson County south to Custer County.

Pettersen uttered several “wows” as she stood in the windy driveway of a home that overlooks the defunct golf course, vacant clubhouse and the gravel berm that hides the impoundments where radioactive waste is buried as Fry gave a brief history of the Superfund site.

Pettersen vowed to support residents by having a local representative attend community meetings and keep abreast of developments.

“We’ve been here a long time,” Fry told her. “This (site) lives in geologic time and we don’t. And politics lives in even shorter time.”

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @suemcmillin