Colorado community battles a toxic shipment

Locals confront the state's first import of radioactive waste

  • LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Deyon Boughton's husband worked at the Cotter mill and was killed by radiation. Now the company wants to bring out-of-state waste to Canon City

    Jeff Haller, Longmont Times-Call
  • RADIOACTIVE RECYCLING: Toxic waste is processed for uranium in these "thickening tanks" at the Cotter Corp. plant

    Jeff Haller, Longmont Times-Call
 

CANON CITY, Colo. - Last winter, when Deyon Boughton read in her local newspaper that 470,000 tons of 'mildly contaminated soil' might be coming to rest at the uranium mill near her home, she winced. Her husband, Lynn, had been a chemist at the mill from 1958 to 1979, and died of lymphoma that doctors linked to uranium exposure. Learning that the Cotter Corp. mill, which has been in and out of production for years, was now in the business of storing radioactive waste hit Boughton hard.

She wasn't alone. The Canon City suburb of Lincoln Park, home to 3,900 residents, is just a few miles from the mill and its tailings ponds. The community, about 40 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, is also close to the Arkansas River and the Royal Gorge, and enjoys a sunny desert climate that has lured hundreds of retirees, some of whom have built $500,000 homes near the mill in the last few years.

The proposal may not seem surprising, considering that the West has become the destination of choice for storing the nation's toxic waste; dumps planned for Nevada's Yucca Mountain and the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah have been vehemently, and publicly, debated (HCN, 8/14/02: Utahns could kill radioactive dump). But the deal in Canon City, which would have been Colorado's first major waste shipment, nearly slipped by, unnoticed not just by the locals, but by the state as well.

Soon after the Canon City Daily Record published the story, a group of citizens formed Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT), and tried to prevent the Cotter Corp. from accepting low-level radioactive soil from a Superfund site in New Jersey. At the time, there were no laws requiring Cotter to inform residents of its plans. Most locals learned about the shipment as Boughton did in the local paper.

The coalition began to hold public meetings, demanding that local officials refuse the company's request for a new license that would allow it to take the New Jersey waste. The coalition also contacted state-level officials, and last April, Gov. Bill Owens quickly signed a bill requiring tighter controls on businesses storing radioactive waste, ultimately stalling the shipment until Cotter can meet the law's new requirements.

"If Cotter gets by with this, someone might think, 'Hey, this is a good business to get into,'" says Sharyn Cunningham, co-chair of CCAT. "The people of Colorado haven't fully realized the danger."

The way we were For longtime residents in Canon City, controversy surrounding the mill is familiar.

Beginning in 1958, the Cotter mill processed ore into uranium oxide or 'yellowcake' - the fuel of nuclear reactors. In those early production years, the mill discharged contaminated waste into unlined tailings ponds - standard practice at the time. Heavy metals and radioactive material leached into the soil and groundwater, contaminating wells, and tailings dust blew off dried ponds. In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency designated Lincoln Park a Superfund site.

By the late '80s, uranium prices had plunged, Cotter shut down most of its operation, and new homes sprouted near the mill. "It was dormant then," explains Cunningham, who moved to Lincoln Park nine years ago. "People thought it was out of business."

Cotter has since moved the tailings to new lined ponds, paid for residents to hook up to city water and agreed to monitor about 40 wells in the area for uranium and molybdenum. But the company is not out of business. Cotter now wants to begin producing zirconium, a heavy-minerals sand used mainly in the ceramics industry, says Rich Ziegler, Cotter executive vice president. Accepting the soil shipments from Maywood Chemical Co. in New Jersey would provide needed capital.

In addition, Cotter plans to use the soil to cover 'beaches' of dry tailings that release radon and must be sprayed to contain the dust, Ziegler says. But in September, the EPA came back to inspect the mill and found leaky tanks, spills and more than 3,000 drums of calcium fluoride that Cotter had been paid to dispose of nearly two years ago. The EPA wrote to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates the state's radioactive materials in an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, that it had "serious questions" about the company's capacity to handle more radioactive waste.

Not so fast

Regardless of Cotter's poor record, the state health department has allowed the mill to continue to process tailings for residual uranium. The company also plans to resubmit an environmental assessment it hopes will qualify it to accept the New Jersey waste. The study is required under the new state law signed by Gov. Owens, but the health department rejected Cotter's initial assessment for 'inadequacies.'

"The New Jersey waste's radioactivity is very low," says David Butcher, with the health department. "You could make a case that the natural soils around the Canon City area are more radioactive than the material in Maywood."

But residents don't trust the Cotter Corp. They cite two private tests in the last decade taken after Cotter's 'cleanup' that showed high levels of radioactive material in town and at the local elementary school. And they point to years of health problems: Just last year, a federal judgment forced Cotter to pay more than $41 million to 26 landowners who said they had suffered waste-linked problems ranging from cancer to gout.

Nonetheless, the issue has divided the community, where half of the 115 employees who work at Cotter already have been let go.

Some locals contend that those who chose to live near the mill have no right to complain. "It reminds us of people who buy land next to an airport and then whine about the noise," wrote George Turner, director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, in a Record guest column. The board of the Fremont Economic Development Corporation passed a resolution supporting Cotter for the economic benefits it provides, including a payroll of $3.5 million.

But Cunningham and Boughton are hopeful they can block the shipment permanently. "We can't undo what happened to Lynn," Boughton says, speaking of her husband. "But can't we stop it from happening in the future?"

The author writes from Cortez, Colorado.

You can contact ...

  • Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste, Canon City, Colo., www.ccatoxicwaste.org;
  • Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 303/692-2000, www.cdphe.state.co.us/lr/cotter/Cotter_Main.htm;
  • The Cotter Corp., www.cotterusa.com.
High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...