Cause & Effect
The Daily Record News Group
CITY - Leaning back in a chair in his office in a historic building
on Cañon City's main thoroughfare, George Turner ponders
just why it is so important for a mill that provides only a fraction
of the jobs in the local labor force to stay open.
As the head of the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce, there
are certainly more important industries holding together the economic
backbone of Fremont County for him to worry about.
As a whole, mining and milling activities have contributed no more
than 2 percent of Fremont County's enitire labor force for the last
decade, according to data from the Colorado Department of Labor
and Employment. In 2001, that had fallen off to 1.2 percent, with
nine mining-related operations, including Cotter, contributing just
170 jobs out of a total workforce of 13,694.
In comparison, the 12 state and federal prisons in and around Cañon
City employ more than 3,000. And the city's tourism-related business
- hotels, restaurants and attractions such as the Royal Gorge -
bring another 1,400 jobs to the area.
Construction, retail, manufacturing, health care and social work,
hotel and other government jobs all had at least five times as many
employees as the mining industry, and even financial services, transportation,
and arts and entertainment contributed more jobs to Fremont County.
Still, said Turner, who was Cañon City's mayor during the
time contamination from the mill left Lincoln Park with a Superfund
designation, Cotter jobs are coveted because they pay well, $9 to
$10 an hour for entry-level employees.
100 jobs out there at the mill, 100 good jobs," said Turner.
"I think it would be a crime if we lose them."
In its heyday, the Cotter Corp. was an economic force, creating
jobs and generating tax revenue for the area. During its early operations
in the 1960s, a hundred jobs in a town that had only several thousand
residents were hard to ignore.
Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after contamination from
the mill was discovered in the wells and soils of nearby homes,
the mill employed close to 250.
But that was long ago.
According to county tax records, Cotter was assessed $234,289 in
property taxes for 2001, just 1.5 percent of the $15.3 million in
property taxes levied and collected in Fremont County last year.
Shut down for more than a decade as a result of a depleted uranium
market and environmental problems, the mill employed a skeleton
crew of only several dozen until operations resumed in 1998. Since
then, the mill's labor force climbed steadily above 100. Then Cotter
management was forced to begin laying off workers again in May.
Three rounds of cutbacks since then have left the mill with only
about 50 full-time employees.
For a region where, according to 2000 Census data, almost 25 percent
of the population aged 25 and older doesn't have a high school diploma,
and where less than 12 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher,
the losses hurt because Cotter's jobs are relatively high-paying,
The average weekly wage for the mining industry in general was $578,
higher than most of the state Department of Labor's other employment
categories. In fact, only government employees and manufacturing
workers had higher average monthly wages on a statewide basis.
Mining workers earned 56 percent more than retail employees, 74
percent more than agricultural workers, 7 percent more than financial
service providers, and nearly double what real estate and rental
service providers made in 2001, according to data compiled by the
While the loss of jobs might seem insignificant given the mining
industry's place in Fremont County economic pecking order, Turner
said effects trickle down.
we lose those people, whe have to assume there's 100 homes where
100 mortgages aren't being paid, 100 people who aren't buying clothes
and food and who aren't paying for things like electricity and gas,"
he said. "And that's going to be felt."
Turner said he gets frustrated by all the controversy surrounding
the mill's proposal to dispose of mildly radioative Superfund waste
in its tailings impoundments, especially when the state health department
has all but signed off on the plan.
have to trust that the government agencies have our best interests
at heart. If you can't trust the Colorado Department of Public Health
and Environment, who can you trust?" he said. "The Maywood
soil fell under (the mill's) license. They don't have to notify
us every time they haul in a load of ore.
are things that shouldn't be open to public debate.
stuff is so technical that the public will never be able to make
an informed decision."
In the end, he said, the balance between minimal risk from the mill
and the Cotter's economic benefit to the community, small as it
may be, needs to tip in favor of workers, jobs and prosperity.