Citizens' Groups Raise Concerns at Honeywell
Dec. 14METROPOLIS, Ill. Citizens' groups in two states want regulators to close a uranium mill in Colorado pending an investigation into the safety of 6,000 barrels of calcium fluoride waste shipped to the mill from the Honeywell International plant on U.S. 45 north of here.
The southern Illinois-based Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists and Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste have written the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, urging a 30-day suspension of licensing of Cotter Corp. in Cañon City, Colo. Cotter makes "yellowcake," a raw material in the production of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, that is manufactured by Honeywell for use in nuclear fuel.
Spokesmen for the two groups say they will soon send a letter to the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They say they want the agencies to look into whether the two plants complied with licenses and regulations regarding the shipments. They also say the calcium fluoride contained "very high levels of commingled radioactive and chemical waste."
Rory O'Kane, manager of the Metropolis plant, said Honeywell ships calcium fluoride a byproduct of uranium fluorination by Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to facilities, including Cotter, that extract uranium from the material. Those plants are responsible for the leftover waste, he said.
O'Kane said neither Colorado regulators nor others have complained about the calcium fluoride, and he had not heard of the environmental groups' complaints until the Sun contacted him.
In a Monday news release, Cañon City resident Jeri Fry, co-chairman of the Colorado citizens' group, said calcium fluoride tailings were dumped into Cotter's impoundment pond upstream from the town. A recent state environmental study found that the impoundment liner was defective and that the groundwater contaminated, Fry said.
The news release cited Oct. 27 testimony by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment official Phil Egidi that the calcium fluoride drums contained high levels of uranium and thorium 230 that are not typical of mill ore. Egidi said the material was very hazardous in terms of radiation and hydrogen fluoride gas, according to the release.
"We are concerned about what is going on at the Metropolis facility," said RACE President Mark Donham, of Brookport. "Just last year, a serious leak at the facility, in combination with no emergency planning, injured people and terrified the local area. And now we find out that more contamination might have been in the gas than what we were being told."
O'Kane said thorium, a cousin to uranium, is present both in uranium ore mined worldwide and the UF6 manufactured by his plant. It is acceptable in trace amounts under NRC licensing, he said.
NRC officials said Monday that they would look into the groups' concerns, but a previous investigation into the Dec. 22, 2003, release did not reveal excessive contamination. UF6 is ordinarily mildly radioactive and largely a chemical threat because it emits toxic hydrogen fluoride on contact with moisture in the air.
"We have no reason to believe that any of that information was inaccurate or different from what we saw at the time," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. "At least at this point, we still stand by the information in that inspection report."
O'Kane said the UF6 gas cloud and solid calcium fluoride shipments "are two separate issues," and the details of the release were accurately reported to the NRC.
The gas cloud hospitalized four people and caused more than two dozen others to be evacuated from their homes. NRC inspectors said Honeywell employees changed the fluorination system without detailed instructions, causing the leak. Also, the plant failed to implement some parts of its emergency response plan and did not provide sufficient information to local emergency responders.
However, the NRC said Honeywell "took prompt and comprehensive corrective actions, exceeding those actually required," following the release. The plant did not face any civil penalties.
The plant voluntarily shut down for four months to make improvements, including a greater number of community warning sirens and an automated phone system that in an emergency calls people living within 1.3 miles of the center of the plant notification zone. The system calls nearest residents first and works outward, dialing 250 numbers per minute. Honeywell activates it by dialing an 800 number.
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© 2004, The Paducah Sun, Ky. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.