The Poisoned Well

What can a Superfund site in Colorado tell us about potential uranium mining and milling in Virginia?

Sharyn Cunningham and her family drank from a poisoned well for eight years. When they bought property in Cañon City, Colo., in 1994, they had their two wells tested—but just for normal water quality issues, not for radioactivity or heavy metals. They didn’t know that the groundwater below their home had been infiltrated by toxic waste from the Cotter Corporation’s uranium mill on the edge of town.

Sharyn Cunningham. Photo by Rose Jenkins

“There were a lot of people using their wells,” she told me. “I never thought about uranium.”

I was in Cañon City on the first of a series of stops of visits to communities in the West that have experience with the uranium industry. My purpose was to inform the debate over whether to allow uranium mining and milling in my home state of Virginia. In stories like Cunningham’s, there may be important lessons learned that Virginians should take to heart.

The history of the uranium mill, or processing plant, in Cañon City can be recounted as one failure after another in containing hazardous wastes. Early on, in the 1950s, the Cotter Corporation simply dumped mine tailings—the dirt and rock remaining after concentrated “yellowcake” is extracted from uranium ore—on the ground. During heavy rains, a toxic flood washed into the neighborhoods below. In 1971, Fremont County constructed an earthen dam to stop flooding, but contaminated water seeped through, underground. Later, the company built a wall with technology to filter out contaminants, but the filter clogged. Today, water that flows downhill from the site is pumped back into impoundment ponds.

But the tailings may still be releasing unseen contaminants into the groundwater. The piles were moved into huge pits equipped with a rubber liner, in 1979. But a series of recent studies indicates that the lined pits are leaking or are likely to leak.

In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the Cotter Mill site and the adjacent Lincoln Park neighborhood a Superfund site. But when Cunningham bought her home in Lincoln Park ten years later, she didn’t know that. She never thought about Cotter until 2002, she says, when the company announced a plan to import and store toxic waste from other parts of the country, starting with almost half a million tons of contaminated earth shipped out of New Jersey. In response, she helped to found the grassroots group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT). When the CCAT board met with a representative from the state health department, she learned for the first time that her well posed a health hazard.

“He said, ‘Well, nobody’s using their wells in Lincoln Park,’” Cunningham recalls. “And I raised my hand and said, ‘Um… we are.’ And he kind of freaked out.”

In the years that followed, hundreds of area residents who got sick—with cancers, bone diseases, kidney diseases, autoimmune diseases, and other problems—filed class action lawsuits. After years in court, they won settlements, although the company did not admit any fault.

Cunningham believes that her family’s health was also harmed, but she stayed out of the lawsuits—focusing instead on forcing the company to stop poisoning the ground, air, and water of Cañon City.

CCAT’s citizen activists succeeded in stopping the Cotter Corporation from importing hazardous wastes—materials so toxic that it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the places they came from to get rid of them.

As Cunningham describes it, elected officials assumed that public opinion would be evenly split between people who opposed the import plan on grounds of public health and people who supported it on grounds of economic development. Instead, CCAT rallied an overwhelming consensus against it. In a community of about 18,000, the organization gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan, including many business owners, health care workers, and educators. In 2005, the state denied the permit. CCAT went on to successfully advocate for three state laws affecting the uranium mill.

Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, feels that the public has been left out of the plan for cleaning up the Cotter uranium mill, where tailings ponds are being filled in with earth. Photo by Rose Jenkin

One of these required the company to send impacted property owners a yearly letter informing them of the status of their wells to ensure they do not drink poisoned water in ignorance, as the Cunninghams had. Over several decades, properties with contaminated wells were connected to the town water system, but their wells still work, and people use them as they see fit.

This law, which passed in 2010, also required Cotter to clean up contaminated groundwater in order to continue processing uranium. That meant pumping the water up to a treatment plant, removing uranium and heavy metals, and then returning it to the aquifer. Instead, in 2011, the company chose to close the mill. By pushing the law through, CCAT effectively shut down the uranium mill.

When I asked Cunningham her goal now, she said, “Ideally, I want them to restore this site to what it was. They came in here and they poisoned our land. They poisoned our water. I want them to clean it up with the best technology, in the fastest way possible… I want my two wells back.”

Plans for the clean-up are underway, with a trio of state and federal agencies in charge, and opinions differ about how to handle it.

Cunningham believes that a full clean-up would involve treating the contaminated groundwater and removing the massive tailings deposits, which will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. At the eight other Colorado uranium mills that have been closed down and cleaned up, she says, the tailings were hauled away—away from population centers and water sources, to places where geologic formations will help contain the wastes.

At those eight mills, the companies went bankrupt and left the job to taxpayers—with costs totaling over $1 billion, in Colorado alone. At Cotter, which was purchased in 2000 by General Atomics, the company is responsible for the clean-up—and its preferred course of action appears to be to bury the site and leave it be.

I repeatedly contacted the Cotter Corporation and General Atomics, but did not receive a reply.

Steve Tarlton, radiation program manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, one of the three agencies managing the clean-up, told me in an email: “[C]ontaminants at Cotter are effectively contained on site. There is groundwater and soil contamination within the property that is being studied to determine the appropriate remedies.” He listed steps that have already been taken, which include connecting properties with contaminated wells to city water, removing contaminated soils, and installing barriers to prevent water migration. Because of these measures, he stated, “residents are no longer at risk.”

The citizens whom I met were skeptical of this assessment. They cite Cotter’s estimate, in a 2009 document titled “Site Conceptual Model and Corrective Measures for the Canon City Milling Facility, Colorado”, that over half a billion gallons of groundwater have been poisoned. They point to maps of water-sampling data, produced by Cotter in 2008, that show a plume of contaminated water extending nearly to the Arkansas River. And they point to a series of studies suggesting that the tailings piles could still be leaking into the aquifer.

Officially, the cleanup plan is subject to an ongoing public process, but the local activists I spoke to felt sidelined.

When Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, led me through pines and cactuses up a ridge overlooking the mill site, what we saw looked like a plan that was well underway. Where buildings and containment ponds once had spread over a vast acreage, only two small ponds remained in field of dirt. The buildings had been taken down and buried in the pits, which were steadily being filled in. “It’s like if someone says they’re going to build you a house and you get to give input on what that house is going to look like,” Grenard said. “But they take you out six weeks later and the house is 90% built.”

He concluded, “The public is there so they can say they had a public meeting.”

In Cañon City, I met a number of hard-working volunteers connected with CCAT who had educated themselves to the point of expertise on issues such as radioactivity, hydrogeology, and bureaucratic process. Lee Alter and Kay Hawklee, CCAT members who are fighting a proposal for renewed uranium mining near their homes in the rural Tallahassee Creek area, told me that regulators are often allied with the industry, leaving much of the burden on citizens to protect themselves.

Lee Alter shows the author an abandoned open pit uranium mine located just across the road from his ranch. This mine flooded when it hit a spring, creating this pond. Alter says that Geiger counters show mild radioactivity at this site and dangerous levels of radioactivity at another abandoned, unreclaimed mine nearby. Photo by Rose Jenkins

Even within this group of activists, I found that Cunningham’s dedication earns a high level of respect. Grenard compared her to Erin Brockovich.

“I have worked 40 to 50 hours a week, for ten years, as a volunteer,” she told me. That meant sharply cutting back her work as a psychotherapist between the ages of 55 and 65 when she would have been preparing for retirement. She sees this fight as her calling. “I believe this is a purpose that landed on me,” she says.

I found Cunningham’s story powerful. But was it relevant? Maybe Cañon City was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—in the path of the uranium industry from its sloppy early days. No one denies that the industry, historically, caused people grievous harm—but it claims it can do better now.

Patrick Wales, the project manager for Virginia Uranium, LLC, which is seeking to extract uranium near Danville, has said that his company will build “the safest uranium mine in the world.”

Virginia’s heavy rainfall and intense natural events could heighten that challenge. In the United States, uranium has typically been mined or milled in arid areas, like Cañon City, which averages just 13 inches of precipitation every year. Danville averages 45 inches—and, in the last 18 months alone, has weathered powerful storms, deadly tornadoes and a 5.8 earthquake.

A dry climate should make it easier to keep mine tailings from overflowing or seeping into rivers and groundwater. Yet, the history of the uranium industry in the West is replete with problems—such as the continuing leaching of radioactive materials into the Colorado River from the Atlas Mill in Moab, Utah, and the 1979 failure of a tailings dam at Church Rock, New Mexico, the second largest release of radioactive contamination in history, after Chernobyl.

Cunningham notes that carelessness is not a thing of the past in Cañon City, where the Cotter Corporation has amassed over 100 regulatory violations in the last 12 years. And that doesn’t mean the problems were fixed, she says, just pointed out.

Wales told me that today’s improved practices can effectively contain hazardous materials, and have done so at well-run facilities in Canada and Australia. He said, “The technology that we use today, under current regulations, with the below grade-storage and the double lined containment ponds, largely has prevented that material from entering the environment.”

He cited the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study Uranium Mining in Virginia, which found that improved practices make the industry safer. This study states, “If uranium mining, processing, and reclamation are designed, constructed, operated and monitored according to modern international best practices, near-to-moderate term environmental effects… should be substantially reduced.”

It further notes: “Extreme natural events (e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall events, drought) have the potential to lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such an event, or fail to perform as designed.”

When commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the NAS was instructed to remain neutral as to whether the state’s moratorium on uranium mining should be lifted. It carefully concluded that “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted.” Recently, one scientist who served on the study committee, Dr. Peter DeFur, went further by declaring—speaking for himself—that the challenges in Virginia are “insurmountable.”

While I am out West, I plan to visit other communities that have been affected by uranium mining. These include the Navajo Nation, which has banned uranium mining because of its disastrous prior experience. I’ve also spoken with citizens in the town of Naturita, Colo., where people once made a good living from uranium mining. Although many miners there died of cancer, due in part to conditions in the mines, the citizens that I met felt strongly that, given improved industry standards, the economic benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks.

I asked Cunningham, “Do you think uranium mining and milling can be done safely now?”

She said, “I’m going with the Navajos. They call it the yellow monster. Leave it in the ground.”

Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until 2012, she had served as senior writer and editor at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at .