CITY - Although its regulatory oversight of uranium mills is limited,
"serious questions" by the Environmental Protection Agency about the
Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City operation could doom one of two company
proposals to dispose of Superfund waste in its tailings ponds.
In a Sept. 13 letter to state health officials, Wanda Taunton,
the regional director of the EPA's Solid and Hazardous Waste Program,
cited "a number of questions and concerns" about the mill. Her six-page
letter highlighted problems such as leaky tanks, spills, lack of
protocols to track and manage radioactive materials and safety violations.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, through the state health department,
is mostly responsible for regulating Cotter's uranium-processing
operations. The EPA, however, does have a say over the shipment
of Superfund waste, under its so-called "off-site rule," when it
is transported from one site to another.
The agency approved Cotter's request to use its tailings ponds
to directly dispose of - without any processing - contaminated soil
such as the radioactive thorium tailings from the Maywood Superfund
site in northern New Jersey.
But in July, Cotter also asked EPA to declare three of its ore
storage pads and its chemical circuits as acceptable for actually
processing Superfund waste - in this case, 35,000 tons of uranium-tainted
soil from the contaminated Li Tungsten site in Long Island, N.Y
And according to Taunton, until the EPA's concerns are resolved,
the agency cannot sign off on those plans.
EPA's main concerns with Cotter revolve around three main issues:
hazardous chemicals possibly contaminating the company's tailings
ponds, insufficient warranties for the mill's eventual cleanup and
on-site environmental contamination.
The EPA is concerned about hazardous materials because they could
jeopardize the future decommissioning of the mill. When that happens
- likely not for several decades - the Department of Energy is scheduled
to become the custodian of the site. But DOE may be unwilling to
accept that role if the facility is contaminated with chemical hazards
other than the radioactive soil it has authority over.
"EPA is concerned with the lack of an adequate system for managing
radioactive materials at the facility because it brings into question
whether there has already been inappropriate disposal … in the impoundments,"
Taunton wrote. She cited, for example, a state report noting that
Cotter had dumped cleanup of contamination from other parts of the
mill into its tailings ponds.
Similarly, Taunton voiced alarm about 3,120 drums of calcium fluoride
stored at the mill. The material, a byproduct of manufacturing uranium
hexafluoride for enrichment into nuclear fuel, arrived at Cotter
in 52 shipments over a nine-month period beginning in March 2000.
"Since completion of the shipments 17 months ago," Taunton said,
"the drums have been stored on the site, and Cotter has not yet
developed a method for processing them. In fact, (the state radiation
services lab) has reported that Cotter is not able to open the drums.
"EPA is concerned that this situation raises the question of whether
Cotter has demonstrated the ability to manage and process these
Not only could the drums lead to problems with turning the mill
over to the DOE, but they also bring into question whether Cotter
has bonded enough money to cleanup the mill when it closes.
"If these drums were still present at closure, they may need to
be sent to another facility at a cost that would significantly tax
the warranty," Taunton's letter said.
The final issue troubling the EPA involved the mill's environmental
During a June 5 site inspection, according to Taunton, state and
EPA officials "observed that liquids were seeping from the wooden
leaching vats in the mill processing circuit and that these liquids
were likely entering the ground through cracks in the deteriorated
concrete pads on which they stand."
With the unprocessed drums and leaky tanks in mind, Taunton concluded
that the Li Tungsten waste "could be stored on the site for a long
period of time and that chances of releases to the air or ground
water could be high."
According to Ed Als, a remedial project manager for the EPA's
Region 2 office in New York City, the agency has determined that
the so-called Li Tungsten material shouldn't be regulated as a hazardous
"I would certainly characterize it as low level," he said. "What
we have out there … ranges from 30 to 50 picocuries per gram, and
up to hundreds of picocuries per gram in several places, but we
don't have anything hotter than that."
The Li Tungsten site also has heavy metal contamination. According
to Als, three out of around five dozen soil samples failed the toxicity
test for lead.
"That means the area where the material is over the standard is
compromised, so it might have to go to a different facility," Als
The remainder of the material, however, is appropriate for any
facility authorized to accept uranium tailings. The EPA's responsibility,
Als said, is in making sure the site is cleaned up on schedule,
not which specific waste facility the material goes to.
"We basically tell the PRPs (potentially responsible parties)
to get rid of the stuff," he said. "They tell us where they're going
to send it and then we check with the agencies there to make sure
there are no problems and sign off on the plans to ship it."
Because the Region 8 office of the EPA in Denver has problems
with Cotter, however, receipt of the Li Tungsten waste is on hold,
and it may actually end up somewhere else.
"We have private parties here that basically want to wait for
Cotter to get its approval, but we have a problem with that," said
Als. "We're sitting around waiting too long. We want the stuff cleaned
"We care where it goes, but we don't like being in limbo."
Eric Frankowski can be reached at 303-776-2244 Ext. 319, or by
e-mail at email@example.com.