Daily Record News Group
the Cotter Corporation, the issue is survival in what is probably
the most economically challenging uranium market since the atom
was cracked in the 1940s.
many in Canon City, the issue revolves around trust. Can Cotter
and the Colorado Department of Health be trusted to look after the
interests of Canon City residents, when the record is replete with
examples of situations in which the health and welfare of the community
were not protected?
health department decision about whether to allow soil contaminated
with thorium from the former Maywood, N.J., lantern factory site
to be shipped to and deposited on the Cotter facility site is but
one of three major decisions to be made in the coming weeks or months.
Also on the health department's agenda is resolution of 16 violations
of the Cotter Corporation's license to operate. This year's violations,
a record for one year, bring the total violations to more than 140
since Cotter began operations at Canon City in 1959. Finally, the
health department is considering whether to renew Cotter's five-year
has worked diligently in recent months to perfect a new process
that would move the company away from the economically challenged
uranium milling business, said company President Richard Cherry
and Executive Vice President Rich Ziegler. The company would like
to begin production of zirconium, a material used in the ceramics
industry. But venture capital in the ore milling industry is difficult
to secure and thus operations must generate the cash needed to retool,
the two executives said. Revenue gained from disposal of the Maywood
soil would provide the money needed to continue the development
of the zirconium process. Thus, the health department's decision
has a significant impact on the future operations of the company.
Cherry and Ziegler eagerly embrace disposal of the Maywood soil
as a means to earn investment cash, they say they are not interested
in becoming a disposal site for other kinds of waste. Yet, they
relate recent and historical instances in which Cotter has processed
and/or disposed of wastes from the nation's environmental Superfund
who have studied the problem of radioactive waste know that there
are limited numbers of places where nuclear and other wastes can
be disposed. Cotter is one that is already approved for disposal
of some of these materials.
health department decisions are overlaid with varying degrees of
knowledge about years of questionable activity at the Cotter plant,
just south up a hill from Canon City and the Arkansas River that
runs through town. Consider, for example:
At least some of the waste from the Manhattan Project, which produced
the nation's first atomic bombs, was processed at the plant without
the full knowledge of the community or plant workers. Material not
reclaimed in the processing for uranium ended up in impoundments
on the site. Some of it is still there.
Radioactive waste was found in the dust of the attic of the Joe
Dodge home, a Ponderosa-looking ranch house just south of town in
Lincoln Park, a Superfund site. This is evidence that particulate
from the plant, or perhaps from shipment of the Manhattan waste
in open rail cars through Canon City, was allowed to spread on the
A government-imposed cleanup of the Cotter mill site and Lincoln
Park beginning in the 1980s resulted in water from the impoundments
being pumped into abandoned coal mines that honeycomb the geology
of the area. Ziegler denied the allegation. Company employees, however,
told the court in sworn testimony that it had occurred.
Cotter agreed to test water wells in the Superfund area. It still
does, but those tests are not regularly audited by the state health
department. Well owners complain that even when the wells are bone
dry, the tests indicate that water was analyzed.
The state itself owned the Cotter site until shortly before the
Superfund designation and before the state lawsuit against the company.
Land ownership, coupled with regular licensing renewals, gave great
weight to the Cotter argument at the time that the state shared
in liability for soil and groundwater contamination.
officials question what past violations and errors have to do with
today's issues. The operation is better run than in the past, they
say, and stories about the past's problems exacerbate unfounded
fears among the general public about radiation and uranium processing.
But Cotter and Canon City are also at a crossroads. Increasingly,
Cotter and its parent company, General Atomics, are advancing the
idea of alternative feed materials. Instead of processing uranium
ore, the mill would process and/or dispose of material cast off
by nuclear industries around the country. Cotter is licensed to
take in so-called 11e(2) material, which is defined as the by-products
of uranium and thorium milling processes. Those byproducts may be
tainted with other hazardous materials.
one time, processing of such wastes might have been restricted at
mills such as Cotter's. However, gradual loosening of the restrictions
- in the face of burgeoning stockpiles of wastes around the country,
make it possible for such material to be placed at installations
such as Cotter. The state of Utah called such processing "sham
processing" in a case it filed before an administrative law
judge. Utah contended that deals to process waste material were
lucrative not because of reclaimable materials such as uranium,
but because of the amount of money offered to dispose of the leftovers.
Utah lost its case. The federal government determined its role extended
only to regulating the radioactive content of materials, not whether
a company's business practices had economic merit.
Canon City, the stakes are high. On one hand, a significant employer's
economic future is at risk. On the other, health and safety issues
come to the fore. Unanswered by the community at large is whether
it is willing to accept a new business operation at Cotter that
could include disposal of wastes that others don't want.
today, we will publish a series of reports gleaned from the review
of thousands of public documents, from dozens of interviews and
from the analysis of multiple studies. Included will be information
about Canon City's connection to the Manhattan Project, information
contained in federal and state court files from lawsuits involving
Cotter, a look at health department oversight of the mill operation,
a review of the current state of affairs of the uranium industry
and what is known - and not known - about the health impacts of
living downstream of Cotter Corporation.