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City Council wants to avoid a dump at Cotter

By John Lemons
The Daily Record News Group
Copyright 2002

Cañon City Council members range from outright dislike of the Cotter Corp. to viewing it as a troubled industry that was once a prized economic benefit when in started in 1958.

"We have made a strong statement that we don't want to be a toxic waste dump," Mayor H.B. Benny Johnson said. "However, we are not anti-Cotter."

The council approved a resolution in March opposing shipments of low-level radioactive soil from the Maywood Superfund site in New Jersey and supporting Gov. Bill Owens order to stop or limit the shipments. The intent was to seek the delay of shipments from New Jersey so that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could study the materials and determine the impact on the safety of the community.

As the mayor, Johnson said he has to be neutral. But as a citizen, he believes the health department has the responsibility to make sure Cotter is not a health hazard to its neighbors.

"They do put out a dangerous product," he said. "As long as the health department monitors them, I am for live and let live."

Johnson said the materials that Cotter wants to ship to the mill don't concern him. Besides the Maywood materials, Cotter also wants to receive radioactive materials from the Li Tungsten Superfund site in New York and has received two shipments of waste from Oklahoma.

"I am not concerned about that, because what I call a toxic material, something that is extremely hazardous, is placed in double barrels," he said.

Johnson said based on what he understands, the Maywood and Li Tungsten materials are not toxic wastes. "This is more or less what Cotter had there before," he said.

"It is like the prisons," said Johnson, who is a retired state prison warden. "People have this fear because they don't know."

Cotter needs to educate the public about the operation, he said.

"I don't have a fear of Cotter, but it is a real fear for some people," Johnson said.

While the city council has issued a resolution of concern about Cotter becoming a toxic or nuclear waste dump, the city has limitations on what it can do because Cotter is outside city limits, he said.

The city supplies water to Cotter at a reduced rate of 48 cents per 1,000 gallons, according to city records. The city also has a contract to supply up to 18 percent of the city's current average daily water supply to Cotter, but Cotter doesn't have the capability of drawing that much water, said Steve Rabe, city administrator.

City officials agreed to supply water to Cotter and the Shadow Mountain Golf Course years ago because Cotter was providing jobs and spending money in the community, Johnson said. The water contract with Cotter was renewed recently by the present city council.

"Cotter and the golf course got a good contract," he said.

The contract with Cotter runs until about 2009, and the city can't break it legally, Johnson said.

Councilman Bill Jackson, who has been a Cañon City resident for 39 years, said he feels Cotter has done as good a job as it can under the circumstances.

"As far as I can tell, they operate under government regulations," he said. "I suspect it is difficult to stay in compliance knowing how government works.

"I think they have been a pretty good neighbor, considering the type of business they are in," said Jackson, who is a retired power company customer service manager. "I think they have been taken to task a little bit hard.

"People don't understand radioactivity and the things it can accomplish. We forget that the atomic bomb ended World War II and saved many, many lives as far as our service people went."

However, the community doesn't want to be known as a waste dump, he said.

Councilman Mike Near, who has said in the past that he will stand in the road to stop shipments to Cotter, is the most adamant in opposition.

"I am really concerned about the health and safety of the community," said Near, who is an elementary school teacher. "I don't believe that the people of Cañon City have a lot of trust in Cotter based on what has happened so far."

Near said he doesn't want to see people lose jobs, but a lot of people have suffered from health problems in Lincoln Park.

If Cotter operates under its uranium ore processing license, that is one thing, he said. But the company doesn't have a license to become a nuclear waste dump.

Near also praised the members of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste for their efforts to educate the public.

Councilman David Russell said he has been frustrated in his attempts to learn more about Cotter and its impact on the community. However, after going to Denver and talking to officials, he said he came away with little or no real answers.

"If they are doing this in a safe way, then they should continue," Russell said. "But I never got any clear answers."

As for the city's ability to control Cotter, it is outside city jurisdiction, he said. Even the railroad and highways leading through the city by which Cotter can ship materials are controlled by federal agencies, he said.

"Like many citizens here, I have many questions and concerns," Russell said.

Councilwoman Ann Swim is opposed to Cotter's efforts to bring in waste from other sites.

"I am against Cotter becoming a toxic dump," Councilwoman Ann Swim said. Because the city doesn't have control over Cotter, Swim said she has not become as informed about the company as she would like. The council had planned to take a tour of the mill, but the tour hasn't taken place yet.

"I think they have been lax in the past and not followed all the rules," she said of Cotter. "I think the state needs to do a little more looking at things for the citizens."

Councilwoman Barbara Smith said she has not taken a stand on the issue yet.

"It is really a tough situation," Smith said. "I came to the community in 1995, and I am trying hard to learn the facts."

She said she has attended some of the public meetings and CCAT meetings.

"They are very complicated," Smith said of the Cotter issues. "I really have empathy with both CCAT and Cotter."

Councilman Gerald Gill said he is worried about the materials being brought to Fremont County by Cotter.

"I have mixed feelings," he said. "I don't want this stuff coming into our town.

"There are a lot of places that it can go to in Nevada or Utah. I don't understand why they don't send it there other than Cotter needs to make money."

Gill said the council's role is limited. It needs to know what is going on, but it doesn't have regulatory authority.

Mike Gunkel, who was appointed to the council in July, said he is torn between the two sides because he has friends who work at Cotter.

"I think it is a tough call," said the Cañon City High School teacher and golf coach. "I know a lot of people who work at Cotter and they have a right to make a living.

"On the other hand, I don't want us to have New Jersey's waste."

What concerns him is that Cotter has violated employee safety regulations. "If they can't do their job correctly, that is a whole different story," Gunkel said.

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