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Low-level radioactive soils have been removed from near a home in Maywood, N.J. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Elected officials, candidates disagree about Cotter impact

By John Lemons
The Daily Record News Group
Copyright 2002

After more than 40 years of operation, the activities of the Cotter Corp. uranium mill just south of Cañon City brings out a wide range of opinions from state and county officials.

Joe Rall, Fremont County commissioner and candidate for re-election to a third term, said he isn't in favor of shutting down Cotter as long as it is operating safely.

"Cotter is a legal business, he said. "They have permits to perform processing of uranium and those types of activities, so, I am not in favor of shutting down a legal business as long as they follow the regulations set up by the state and federal agencies."

In the case of the Maywood, N.J., Superfund materials, if the license allows them to dispose of the soil, "I don't feel we have the right to say they can't. Based on the public hearings I attended, there is enough information there so that the department of health can make a decision."

However, he said he doesn't want Cañon City to become known as a nuclear or toxic waste dump.

The Maywood materials are low-level radioactive soils. Cotter wants to use the Maywood materials to cover mill tailings and say it is lower in radioactivity than what already exists in the mill's impoundments.

Opponents of the out-of-state shipments say the soil may be contaminated with toxic materials that make it a health hazard to Cotter workers and Fremont County residents.

The commissioners in March asked the governor to delay the shipments until the state health department could study the materials proposed for shipment to the mill site. The Legislature also passed an emergency bill requiring public hearings. After two hearings and a public comment period, the state health department has yet to decide about the Maywood soil.

"I think it was appropriate for us to have a delay on the shipments until we had a better understanding of the materials they want to bring in," Rall said. "I think the governor and Legislature acted appropriately."

Rall said the county does not have authority to further regulate uranium mills. He said the board or individual commissioners could comment to federal and state officials about Cotter's operations, but the commissioners have been reserved about making public statements, he said.

"We may be called to make a decision on something that comes before us," he said. "We need to be impartial until we have all the facts.

"If some of the concern is that Cotter's operation is hazardous to the community's health and people are dying because of the operation, the state has the authority to shut down the operation. I don't know if Cotter has that effect on the community."

Rall, a Republican, was elected as the District 2 commissioner in 1995 and re-elected to office in 1998. He is opposed in the general election by Democrat Phil Palmeri and unaffiliated candidate Larry Lasha.

Lasha said he is concerned about the Maywood issue. He said he signed a petition against it.

"If it is not good enough for Maywood, I can't see how it is good for us," he said. "It doesn't make sense to me."

The cost of shipping the material anywhere in the country is too much for taxpayers to pay, Lasha said.

Elected officials should be informed about the Cotter operations and the shipments of soil to the Cotter mill, he said. Also, the state health department should be more observant of the situation at the mill, he said.

"They need to be thorough in their job," Lasha said. "It is not a minor issue. When you are dealing with public safety, it is a major issue."

Lasha also praised the efforts of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste for its efforts to bring the issue into the public light. The group has been unfairly criticized for not being informed, he said.

"In my opinion, they are doing the research and doing what they should be doing," Lasha said. "I don't see it as an emotional issue."

Democrat Phil Palmeri said he sees both good and bad with the Cotter situation.

"It is a double-edged sword," he said. "Cotter gives us jobs, but we don't need the toxic image."

Palmeri said he wants to see the county keep its jobs and attract more jobs, but Cotter has to do better. Although he has lived in Fremont County for three years, Palmeri said he understands that Cotter has a long history of violations concerning its operations.

While the regulators should make Cotter operate safely, the community doesn't need the reputation of being hard on industry, he said. The county needs more jobs and revenues and Cotter is owned by a larger company that could be a benefit to the area, he said.

If the company can get the safety issues straightened out, then it should be allowed to operate, Palmeri said. If not, then Cotter shouldn't be allowed to operate.

Palmeri said he gives the members of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste a lot of credit for doing what they do to bring the Cotter problems to public attention.

Commissioner Keith McNew, who is not running for re-election this year, said the commissioners don't have control over Cotter, but he believes Cotter can be a good neighbor if the company is monitored.

"I think it can be properly run with no danger to the community. I have been neutral on it before," he said. "I have some strong personal feelings, but there is nothing I can do except get beat up on it."

Commissioner Jim Schauer, also not running for re-election this year, said it is up to the state to monitor Cotter.

"I would hate to see a 50-year-old company leave town," he said. "If it is legal and the state gives the OK to it, I don't have a problem with it."

However, he said he would like to see the health and safety violations found by the health department at the Cotter mill corrected.

In the race for State Senate District 2, incumbent Ken Kester said he has tried to respond to concerns about the mill. In the last session of the Legislature, he co-sponsored House Bill 1408, which required public hearings and state health department scrutiny of low-level radioactive materials proposed for shipment to Colorado.

Before the legislation, there were no limits on shipments of low-level radioactive materials, he said. Although he received criticism from CCAT members because the legislation didn't go far enough to control the shipments, he said he believes the bill was the best that could be quickly passed through the Legislature.

"If we didn't have HB 1408, I think we would be in deep trouble," Kester said.

The bill stopped the shipments, at least temporarily, and public meetings were held, he said.

In August, Kester asked the health department to conduct a public comment period on the shipments of low-level materials from Superfund sites in other states and require Cotter to provide a better environmental assessment of the impact of the Maywood material. He also asked for a new hearing on the Maywood material.

"I felt our department of health needs to monitor Cotter more closely," Kester said. "I am not trying to cause trouble or put pressure on anyone, but this is a situation we need to watch closely."

However, Kester's opponent in the Senate District 2 race, Dan Slater, blames Kester for the amendments to HB 1408 that make it easier to get the shipments into Colorado. The same procedure should be followed as that of high-level radioactive waste, he said.

The hearings should be conducted by the Legislature, not Cotter, Slater said. The governor and the Legislature, not the health department, should make the final decision, he said.

"The health department has been historically pro industry," Slater said.

Slater said he is not against Cotter as long as the company safely processes uranium ore as it was first intended and licensed to operate. He said he is against Cotter becoming a repository for or a processor of materials from other Superfund sites.

"That is what is called sham processing," Slater said of the processing of Superfund materials. "I tried to warn the Legislature that would happen."

Slater said he would be less opposed to a nuclear waste dump if it was 50 or 60 miles from a community, but Cotter is just a few hundred yards from several subdivisions.

Emily Tracy, candidate for the State Representative District 60 seat against incumbent Rep. Lola Spradley, also is concerned about Cotter's attempt to change its business operations.

"I think it is unfortunate that the industry, after all these years, is trying to figure out what it can do when it grows up," she said.

Converting Cotter from uranium ore processing to waste disposal from other sites is not what some people think Cotter should be doing, Tracy said. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be enough information about the material that has been shipped to the mill.

"Some of that material is high in radiation," she said. "It is more than uranium ore."

Another of her concerns is the lack of control by agencies such as the state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

"After having worked in a state regulatory capacity, I know they are understaffed and under budgeted for the job they do," said Tracy, who recently retired from the Colorado Department of Human Services. "I don't think in general we can rely on government agencies to protect the public."

Elected officials need to look at the state and federal laws that govern functions of companies such as Cotter, she said. There are a lot of gaps in the laws, she said.

Spradley, a Republican, said the Cotter issue has created division and uncertainty in Cañon City. She said people have told her they are concerned about jobs and employee and community safety.

The health department appears to be doing an adequate job protecting the community, she said. When she spoke to health department officials, she said she found the decisions to be based on good rationale and not arbitrary.

"As far as I can tell, they (health department officials) are conscientious about what they are doing," Spradley said. "I think they are doing the best job they know how to do."

When she co-sponsored HB 1408, she was met with resistance from other legislators who didn't think the Legislature should be holding hearings and deciding whether a company such as Cotter should receive low-level radioactive materials. Because the Legislature only meets four months out of the year, many elected officials believed it would put an undue hardship on business owners to require legislative hearings to approve shipments, she said.

If HB 1408 needs to be improved, she can address that in the next session, she said.

As for Cotter, the executives need to let the people know more about what they want to do and how it will impact the community, Spradley said. The impact on the economy from Cotter needs to be better understood, she said.

"I think there are people on both sides of the issue in the community," she said. "But everyone wants to understand and know they are safe."

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