CITY - After eight years on active duty in the Air Force and another
20 working as a civilian contractor for the military, Kerry Smith
is more than familiar with the rigors of regulation and procedure.
For the past three years, he has been working as an instrumentation
specialist and electrician at Cotter Corp.'s uranium mill in Caņon
A proposal to use the mill as a disposal site for radioactive
waste from Maywood, N.J., Superfund cleanup, combined with safety
and reporting violations issued by the state health department,
have many in the community questioning Cotter's soundness.
But Smith said he has no qualms about working at the mill and
is more than comfortable with Cotter's safety record.
"I've never had any problems with any of the safety equipment,"
Smith said. "Anything we need, we get it without question immediately."
Like any industrial job, he said, there are hazards, but the training,
equipment and procedures Cotter has in place surpass the status
"It's hard work," he said. "It's demanding. You have to keep your
wits about you because it's dangerous. But the hazards are no different
than you would find in any industrial setting.
"We deal with acids and caustics, things like anhydrous ammonia.
But there are strict policies on safety, and if you follow the rules,
you're going to limit your exposure."
In April, the state health department's Laboratory and Radiation
Services Division cited Cotter for 16 violations, including lack
of documentation on radiation doses to workers, "deficiencies which
have significant potential health impacts," insufficient bioassays,
and incomplete records.
The violations, said LARS program manager Jake Jacobi, "indicate
a serious and substantial breakdown in the management oversight
of this facility."
Smith is aware of the violations, but said they are insignificant
and really have no bearing on true worker safety and protection.
Most of the violations, he said, involve paperwork, not actual
risk. And although he understands the need for the documentation,
he said the company "is doing what needs to be done to keep people
"If there's ever any doubt that a place is close to being near
the exposure limit, there's no questions, we put on respirators,"
Smith said. "We always err on the side of caution."
He finds it irrational that people are complaining about Cotter
being paid to accept soil that is less radioactive than what's already
in the mill's tailings ponds.
"When I heard the Maywood soil was coming in, I went right to
the company management and asked them, 'What are you guys bringing
in here?'" Smith said. "I was given all the data and material, and
I made my own decisions about it. The soil is pretty comparable
to the kind of soil you could dig up around town.
"I really believe the mill is out there because they want to process
material, and not because some corporate honcho living somewhere
else wants to turn it into a waste dump."
He also knows the mill's future depends in large part on Cotter
taking in the Maywood soil so that the company will have the capital
to finish developing a new chemical circuit to extract zirconium
from uranium ore.
That would mean the difference between a skeleton crew of several
dozen and full-staffing of perhaps 200. Jobs that pay as well as
$9 or $10 an hour are hard to come by in Caņon City, Smith said,
and a fully operational mill would help a lot of families.
In the end, Smith said he would just like critics of his employer
to take a hard look at the facts and understand that there are competent
people who are also part of the community working at the mill.
"I don't like the comments that we're the criminal element and
things like that," Smith said. "We're just people out there trying
to make a living. And we are concerned about safety.
"I've got two kids who live in Caņon City. My son's 25 and my
daughter's 29, and I've got a 14-month-old grandson. They live here
and I would never want to see anything happen to the community that
would harm them."
Eric Frankowski can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 319, or by
e-mail at email@example.com.