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December 19, 2011 07:39 AM UTC

Canon City's Radioactive Elephant in the Room

  • by: The realist

Some of us didn’t expect to live long enough to see this announcement on Saturday:

Cotter to Close Uranium Mill…

Cotter Corporation has been operating a uranium mill under a radioactive materials license since 1958 at a site just two miles south of Canon City.  The post-war uranium mill operated for more than 20 years before word of substantial groundwater, soil and air contamination became public knowledge.  The saga from the late 1970’s until now has been a long history of inadequate oversight and regulation – at both the state and federal level – resulting in extensive damage to private property (contaminated wells and soil) and to this day unquantified health problems.

Citizen involvement in periodic applications for renewal of the radioactive materials license resulted in much attention but little resolution.  Years of monitoring of water, soils and air showed continuing contamination from the by-products of milling, including some radioactive materials with long half-lives.  In 1984, the residential area “downstream” from the mill became an EPA Superfund site (and still is).  

Cotter’s “MO” always been to fight, delay, litigate.  They were rarely fined by the state for the endless violations of their license and other regulations.  

For decades the movers and shakers of the Canon City area supported Cotter’s operations, always citing the “good paying” jobs the mill provided (the jobs didn’t pay that well, but the area has a historically high unemployment rate and low wages).  Those who publicly protested the mill, and the repeated license renewals were criticized, and at times threatened.  Only in recent years has a critical mass of community residents and leaders developed who were willing to say “no more” to the ongoing pollution.  

The most recent citizens group – Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT) – has been the most successful one, even finding success in getting critical legislation passed including requiring the company to clean up its mess before it made a new one (what a concept!).  

So many setbacks, so many insults over the years:

*  Regulation of the radioactive materials processing almost always failed, as did attempts to control or eliminate the pollution.

*  When a small group of CCAT representatives met with then-Governor Owens soon after the group formed, they were attacked and made fun of by the Governor.  The group’s concerns were assigned to a young staffer who consistently failed to respond to inquiries from the group.

*  Repeated attempts over a period of many years to get a full-fledged epidemiological study done on possible health effects of the contamination on nearby residents always resulted in talk but no effective action.  Few if any longitudinal health studies of mill employees have been conducted either, though one study years ago illustrated kidney damage from uranium ingested/inhaled by workers.


The final chapter will be written slowly, over a period of many years.  The bond the company has been required to post, to ensure ultimate full cleanup of the site, is known to be way too low.  Untold numbers of tax dollars has been spent on this operation since the late 1950’s (regulatory and monitoring efforts plus litigation), and many more public dollars will be spent before the site is completely reclaimed.  

The greatest lesson from the Cotter mill is the lesson citizens knew as far back as the 1970’s — a radioactive materials processing facility should have never been located so close to a populated area, over a series of abandoned mine shafts and over groundwater that not only supplied private wells but is also tributary to the Arkansas River.  

It is exciting to see the Canon City area finally able to begin moving beyond its negative image of a polluted community.  As the community begins to see the light at the end of the Cotter tunnel, it is also beginning to see new opportunities to redefine itself, such as through the Over the River project by artist Christo.  The community has lived long with the stigma of being a “prison town” (the Colorado Territorial legislature first established a prison in Canon City in 1868), but now the stigma of being a polluted Superfund site can begin to fade.


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