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What appears to be an inconsequential spill of water likely tainted with uranium at a southern Colorado Superfund site has become the latest point of contention between a citizen’s group and the agencies in charge of cleaning up more than 5 million tons of radioactive materials buried there.

The estimated 400- to 500-gallon spill, detected June 23, was in a restricted area of the Lincoln Park/Cotter Superfund site, where it was quickly contained, and potentially contaminated soil was removed, officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported at a meeting Tuesday. But the story of how it happened and the perceived lack of oversight of the incident as it unfolded angered members of the Community Advisory Group, or CAG, that serves as a watchdog of cleanup efforts and helps keep Cañon City area residents informed.

“Our questions weren’t really answered,” CAG President Emily Tracy said, shaking her head in resignation after the meeting. “They (CDPHE staff) didn’t even come down to see it until after it was cleaned up.

“It’s indicative of what we’ve been dealing with all along. If you mess up a little thing, what are you doing with the big things?”

Cotter Corp. back in the mix

The spill came amid upheaval at the Lincoln Park/Cotter Superfund Site that began when Colorado Legacy Land, the company responsible for its cleanup, in late February told CDPHE and Environmental Protection Agency officials that it was insolvent and would cease work. The former uranium mill site and the surrounding neighborhood just south of Cañon City were declared a Superfund site in 1984, although the mill continued to operate until 2011. 

CLL’s announcement led to a flurry of activity to ensure that the site remained secure and that work moved forward at one of the nation’s most delayed toxic cleanup projects. At the time, the EPA was reviewing CLL’s draft remedial investigation report, a critical point in developing a cleanup plan. The draft report was rejected Feb. 28 by the EPA, which cited numerous deficiencies.

While relieved that work did not come to a halt, CAG members said they are wary because the EPA is bringing Cotter Corp. back into the mix and CDPHE contracted with Ensero Solutions, a company that worked for CLL and whose CEO also is an executive for the insolvent CLL, a perceived conflict of interest.

Cotter, now owned by San Diego-based General Atomics, ran milling operations at the site from 1958 to 2011.

“We’re glad Cotter Corporation will be held accountable under federal Superfund law,” Tracy said in an email Wednesday. 

“At the same time community members remember years of objections and delay while Cotter was active at the site. Many previous attempts to hold the company accountable and to enforce federal and state environmental laws were met with opposition and litigation leading to years of delays at times.” 

And while the CDPHE revoked CLL’s bond, bringing about $23 million into its coffers to continue operation and maintenance at the site, CAG member Tim Payne pointed out on the group’s Facebook page that it’s spending $150,811 a month to “maintain the status quo” and not toward actual cleanup.

The spill

That maintenance includes monitoring a water pump-back system intended to keep any contaminated groundwater from running into the nearby neighborhood of Lincoln Park, which was badly contaminated while the mill operated.

On June 23, workers with Kessler Reclamation discovered a leak in the system while doing road work to repair damage caused by heavy spring rains. According to reports to CDPHE and Ensero officials, the damage occurred two days earlier when Kessler scraped material from the side of the road to fill ruts and hit a 2-inch plastic pipe.

Workers repairing road damaged caused by heavy spring rain discovered water leaking from a broken pipe on the Superfund site near Cañon City. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment photo)
The damage occurred two days earlier when a contractor scraped material from the side of the road to fill ruts and hit a 2-inch plastic pipe. Pipes on the site are not mapped. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment photo)

No one noticed the damage immediately because water does not flow continuously through the system and the pipe was covered with soil, said Paul Barnes, Ensero’s chief operating officer. The company estimated when the damage occurred based on when the road crews were working.

It was discovered because the ground was wet, and Kessler notified Ensero, which in turn notified CDPHE because water running through the system can contain uranium and molybdenum.

Barnes said Kessler can’t be faulted because the water line wasn’t marked and no one knew it was there.

A little more than 8 cubic yards of soil was removed and moved to an impoundment at the Superfund site. The soil samples are being tested but Barnes said the soil was not believed to be heavily contaminated based on previous tests of the water that showed uranium as the only elevated toxic contaminant at 0.54 mg/L.

In its June 30 report to CDPHE, Ensero said that with the water distributed into the soil, the uranium content would be “well below the detection limit for uranium in soil samples.” Ensero’s radiation safety officer did not require a radiation work permit but the cleanup crews did use personal protective gear and followed standard rules for radiation exposure, the letter said.

The pipe was repaired and tested, and the pump-back system was restarted. Barnes said warning signs were placed along the pipe’s track to ensure it is not disturbed again.

CAG members were bothered by the idea that no one knew the pipe’s location, saying a schematic of the entire system is in site records. 

“I’m concerned over the fact that they can’t locate the things that were buried,” CAG member Mary Shorter-King, a retired land surveyor, said after the meeting. 

“Every man-made thing on that site should be mapped with coordinates. That’s surveying 101. They have a toxic waste site they don’t even have coordinates on? Bullshit.”

Conflict of interest

Meanwhile, conflict of interest questions continue to arise over CDPHE’s $1.8 million contract with Ensero Solutions to maintain the site for one year. Ensero CEO Jim Harrington is also an executive with CLL, which initially hired Ensero for work at the site.

After requests from the CAG, CDPHE posted the April 28 contract and Shelley Hickerson, an assistant attorney general with the Colorado Attorney General’s office and a representative for CDPHE’s radiation control program, briefed the group in June about Harrington’s role.

While acknowledging the perceived conflict, Hickerson said “there’s nothing legally wrong with that.”

“It seems unfair that someone who runs the company that is responsible for compliance with the (radioactive materials) license and right now is not complying with any terms of the license and left us in a position to have to take over the obligation of the license is in any way profiting or potentially profiting by being part of the company that currently has that contract with the state, being part of Ensero,” she said. 

“Everybody is aware that it’s not an ideal solution. However, it is somewhat of an unprecedented situation.”

A sign denoting the Colorado Legacy Land remediation project at the site of the former Cotter Mill Superfund Site in Cañon City on Feb. 10. Colorado Legacy Land announced on Feb. 20 that it was out of money and no longer able to conduct remediation work at the site. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Once CLL walked away from the Superfund work, CDPHE had to ensure the site was secure and that air and water monitoring continued, and that the water pump-back system continued to operate. Ensero had been doing that work for CLL and was the only company that could immediately step in and fill the gap, she said.

“At the end of the day, we couldn’t say how long it would take through our contracting process to put another contractor in Ensero’s place,” she said. “If the mandate is protection of human health and environment there really was only one option in my opinion, and that was to keep Ensero there, at least in the short term.” 

Jim Grice, radiation program manager for the health department’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, said the agency will issue a request for proposals for the work at the site to begin May 1, 2024.

That’s for the state’s portion of oversight at the Superfund site under the radioactive materials license, which stays in effect until the site is decommissioned — or cleaned up in layman’s terms. Colorado is a so-called agreement state and handles radioactive materials licenses instead of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On the EPA’s side, it went back to the original owner and operator of the uranium mill, Cotter Corp., to fill the gap left by CLL. Cotter paid CLL an undisclosed amount of money in 2018 to take over the property and the Schwartzwalder uranium mine near Golden and transferred its radioactive materials license to CLL.

CLL is responsible for operating a seasonal water treatment plant at the uranium mine, work that is under the jurisdiction of CDPHE and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, and it reached agreement to continue that work, a DRMS spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The mine contaminated the Ralston Creek watershed west of Denver with arsenic, radium and uranium, but has mostly been cleaned up. The mine safety division holds a $7.6 million bond to ensure that the treatment plant runs in perpetuity, and the radioactive materials separated from the water come under jurisdiction of the CDPHE-issued radioactive materials license held by CLL. 

Cotter’s return to Cañon City

Rebecca Gerhart, EPA’s remedial project manager for the site, said Cotter agreed in a June 9 correspondence with the EPA that it would retake responsibility for cleanup of the former mill site.

“Cotter has been disengaged for a number of years,” she said. “They have to build a team from scratch.”

She said the EPA expects Cotter to have a project manager ready by mid-fall to take over investigations and work plans that will lead to cleanup and decommissioning of the site. Each work plan — and the number of plans depends on the data collected — will require financial bonds to assure that the work is completed, she said.

Cotter attorney Robert Tuchman of Boulder did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The EPA went back to Cotter because it is one of the “PRPs” — potentially responsible parties — under previous agreements.

“We are engaging with Cotter because they are a PRP and they have the resources to complete the work whereas CLL has told us that they do not,” Gerhart said at Tuesday’s meeting, confirming that the EPA is “not pursuing CLL” at this time.

“At this point EPA pursues all responsible parties, which as we just said is Cotter and CLL, but we don’t determine or assess who’s responsible for what percent or how much each party has to pay. In the eyes of CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980) all PRPs are equally responsible.”

She said in most situations the identified parties work out their shares of responsibility. When asked if Cotter and CLL are in contact with each other regarding the site, she said, “I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.”

“The community will be interested to see what Cotter’s approach to the assessment and cleanup will be,” Tracy said.

Jeri Fry helped form the Citizens Advisory Group that works with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Deparment of Public Health and Environment to track remediation efforts at the former Cotter Uranium Mill. (Mike Sweeney/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jeri Fry, a CAG member who co-founded Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste in 2001, is worried that more delays are on the horizon.

“Cotter coming back on site — that doesn’t impress me,” she said. “I would be impressed if General Atomics (Cotter’s owner) came back with a work plan and said this is what we’re going to do. That’s not going to happen.

“The process to me seems to be so bogged down with the regulatory responsibilities that circle around themselves and make it really hard to get anything done.”

Tracy agreed, pointing out that little cleanup has occurred in nearly 40 years since it was declared a Superfund site. She and Fry and a host of other residents have been dogging the agencies for years to spur cleanup efforts.

“There is much to be done to fully assess the extent of environmental contamination at the site, in the nearby Lincoln Park neighborhood, and possibly elsewhere such as in the Town of Brookside,” she said. “And there will be years of extensive work needed to clean up the contamination once the assessment is complete. 

“This community should never have been a dumping ground for radioactive waste and we expect a full cleanup.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.