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Colorado Officials Demand Cleanup of Uranium Mine Leaking Into Reservoir

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After trying for two years to get Cotter Corp. to clean up the extinct Schwartzwalder mine leaking uranium into a creek that flows into a Denver drinking water reservoir, Colorado officials have demanded that action be taken. Uranium from the mine reaches Ralston Creek, which feeds into Ralston Reservoir that provides drinking water for 1.3 Denver residents. Uranium is a radioactive element found in nature. It can be present in soil, air, water, rocks, plants, and food. Uranium breaks down very slowly into other elements, including radium and radon gas.

According to Huff Post Denver,

Testing of the Ralston Creek waters have yielded high contamination results for years — back in 2010, Fox31 reported that groundwater near the creek contained uranium levels 1,000 times higher than human health standards permit, but Cotter has continued to defy clean up orders.

The Department of Health says that the water supplies for Denver Water, Arvada and North Table Mountain are safe even though the contamination exceeds safety standards, according to CBSDenver.
According to the Denver Water website, uranium is removed in Denver Water’s treatment process. However, they also state that because of the high concentrations of uranium from the mine found at Ralston Creek, they have stepped up extra precautionary measures. Denver Water is also evaluating [available] legal options to ensure that the polluter is the party responsible for the clean up.

“Fortunately, our treatment process removes uranium and our drinking water is safe, but the elevated concentrations of uranium entering the plant are of concern,” said Tom Roode, Denver Water’s director of operations and maintenance. “We would like to see action to ensure the mine is cleaned up as soon as possible.”

Although most uranium that gets into the body through food and water is eliminated from the body, a small amount is absorbed and can eventually cause kidney damage, according to the Vermont Department of Health’s Uranium page. Over time, drinking water that contains uranium can increase a person’s risk of cancer. The risk depends on how much radioactivity is in the water, how much water a person drinks per day, and how long a time the person has been drinking that water. Residents can treat water coming into their homes by two methods in order to remove uranium. Those are anion exchange and reverse osmosis, both of which require proper maintenance and operation.

Last year, Cotter filed a lawsuit saying regulators had overstepped their authority when mining officials requested a cleanup of the Schwartzwalder mine. But last Friday, a Denver District Court judge ruled in favor of Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Board, which had ordered the de-watering of the 2,000-foot mine shaft and imposed penalties.

As Bruce Finley reports in The Denver Post:

Cotter acquired Schwartzwalder in 1965 and produced roughly 17 million pounds of uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants. The mine closed in 2000, and water-treatment facilities were dismantled.

[…] Cotter has argued that toxic groundwater filling its 2,000-foot-deep mine shaft is not connected to Ralston Creek.

As a temporary solution, the health department last week ordered Cotter to install a concrete wall and to funnel water into a pipe that would carry Ralston Creek around the mine and then, below the mine, back toward Ralston Reservoir. A longer-term solution would be a pump-and-treat operation.

The state requires companies to post enough bond money to cover the cost of cleanup work so it doesn’t have to be paid for by taxpayers. State officials said the $1.2 million bond posted by Cotter is not enough to clean up the Schwartzwalder mine should the company walk away. Officials told The Denver Post they will insist on a larger bond in addition to the de-watering of the mine.

Image by Mad House Photography, used under its Creative Commons license.


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