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Publish Date: 9/20/2005

Expert calls Cotter’s radon monitoring inadequate


Cotter Corp.’s environmental monitoring system is not adequate, particularly when it comes to sampling concentrations of radon, and it should be expanded significantly, according to a German specialist in radioecology and environmental risk assessment.

Bernd Franke, scientific director of the Heidelberg, Germany-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, testified via speaker phone from Heidelberg during Monday morning’s resumption of an administrative hearing over Cotter’s appeal of licensing requirements set by the Colorado Department of Public health and Environment.

Franke, retained last month by Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste to review documents about the exposure of Cañon City-area residents to ionizing radiation from the Cotter uranium-processing mill site, said Cotter needs a denser network of monitoring locations to sample for the presence of radon 222.

He said in his written report, a “preliminary review of radiation exposures from Cotter Mill” that CCAT has submitted as an exhibit in the hearing, that “the geographic variability of radion-222 concentrations” at Cotter’s present monitoring locations “is too large to be solely due to natural sources. A denser network of sampling locations is needed to determine further hot spots.”

Franke also concluded, based on documents provided him by CCAT and those he found on the state health department’s Web site, that it hasn’t been demonstrated that Cotter is in compliance with regulatory limits to radion-222 concentrations because, he said, “Cotter incorrectly counts non-background radion-222 as natural background” already present and not emanating in the form of airborne releases from the plant.

Franke said the contribution of radon-222 emissions from the Cotter site “is not properly determined” and dose estimates for thorium-230 released from the Cotter site “are not confirmed by environmental monitoring.”

He said he believed that if they had been calculated correctly, radon concentrations would have been higher than regulatory limits allow.

Franke also said the state health department procedure Cotter is following for monitoring, measuring and calculating radon exposures “is completely arbitrary” and that changes are needed to determine what radon is coming from the Cotter operations as opposed to that which already is present in areas such as Lincoln Park and eastern Cañon City.

Later Monday, Cotter produced its own witness to rebut Franke’s conclusions and challenge the methodology he used to reach his findings.

Janet Johnson, a health physicist who is a senior technical adviser with MFG Inc. of Fort Collins, said the radon background locations designated by Cotter and approved by the state Public Health Department “are far enough away from the mill and not really in a downwind direction,” so they reflect the naturally occurring background radiation at those locations.

Johnson, a certified industrial hygienist whose background includes training Cotter employees, said the monitoring methods and mathematical calculations used by Cotter are approved by the state health department and that Cotter actually has more environmental monitoring stations than required by federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines.

Upon questioning by Cotter attorney John Watson, Johnson — who was not present for Franke’s telephone testimony in the morning session of the hearing at the Fremont County Administration Building but who had reviewed his written report prior to her own afternoon testimony — said Franke made mistakes in his report in identifying and reaching conclusions about two monitoring locations.

As for Franke’s call for a denser network of sampling stations, Johnson said: “I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Cotter already has located stations where the highest concentrations of radon would be expected to occur, she said, including those near the major sources of radon at the mill property itself, which she said primarily are ore pads and tailings impoundments.

Cotter could add stations, but that would not add useful information or data about whether it is in compliance with radon-limits regulations, Johnson said.

In Watson’s Monday morning cross-examination of Franke, the Cotter attorney said everyone is exposed to some degree to the gas radon.

“We all breathe it around the world because it’s contained in the soil,” Watson said, adding that radon and the particulates that form when it decays can be found in home basements, crawl spaces and walls, even if there’s no industrial facility as Cotter’s mill in the vicinity.

Watson noted that Cotter’s monitoring systems are outdoors and their readings can be affected by winds, barometric pressure and the moisture content of the soil, factors that he said can vary from year to year.

Also testifying at Monday’s hearing was Fremont County Commissioner Mike Stiehl, a Lincoln Park resident who questioned the validity of studies commissioned by Cotter that indicated the plant’s operation and presence had not depressed the real estate market in areas neighboring or near the mill.

After buying his house on the banks of Sand Creek in mid-1991, Stiehl discovered belatedly that his well was contaminated and that Lincoln Park was part of a Superfund cleanup site, he said.

Stiehl said his training as a biologist prompted him to start asking questions about the impact of the mill and Cotter’s plans. But he said he continued to be told: “Everything’s fine; don’t worry about it.”

Stiehl, who said he plans to sell his house and move to a presumably safer home about a mile away, said that while he has made “admittedly a small study” of about 16 other Lincoln Park homebuyers, he has not yet heard from anyone who was told by real estate agents that there were potential environmental and health problems present.

Stiehl acknowledged under questioning from Watson that his home has probably appreciated in value since he originally bought it, based on increasing tax assessments of the property. However, that may change when he sells the house, Stiehl said, because he will tell any prospective buyer that it’s in a Superfund area and has a contaminated well.

Another witness called Monday by CCAT co-chairwoman Sharyn Cunningham was Dr. Gary Mohr, a Cañon City family physician who noted positions taken earlier by the Fremont County Medical Society and the Colorado Medical Society against allowing Cotter to receive and dispose of tons of mildly radioactive materials from a Superfund site in Maywood, N.J, which also is the current position of the Department of Health and Environment and one of the licensing restrictions being challenged by Cotter in these hearings.

With Watson issuing several objections, administrative law Judge Richard Dana — who is presiding over the hearings — allowed Cunningham to ask only limited questions and Mohr to make limited responses about unidentified patients who were Cotter workers.

Mohr, with Watson continuing to object, said he had treated a number of such patients, some of whom had been injured at the plant, some of whom had been exposed to radiation and some of whom had developed cancer.

Testimony was to resume — and possibly conclude — today.

Dana will eventually make non-binding recommendations to Douglas Benevento, executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, who is then to make final decisions about the license requirements.

 

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