A leak in the system
The Daily Record News Group
CITY -- Speaking before a meeting of the Colorado Mining Association
in 1966, Cotter Corporation founder and executive vice president
David Marcott tried to address mounting questions about possible
pollution from his mill near Cañon City.
He told those in attendance that management located the mill several
miles south of the city only after an exhaustive search to find
the best site. Several sites were rejected, he said "because
of their proximity to the Arkansas River and the attendant problem
of direct release of tailings into the river," especially during
others were rejected," he continued, "because the topography
and area did not assure Cotter that the total of the tailings from
its contemplated operations could be safely controlled entirely
within the confines of the site."
In the end, Marcott said, even though it burdened the company with
having to pipe in water and do without direct rail access, putting
the mill in a shallow basin several miles south of the city was
"ideal for the purpose of controlling tailings."
tailings pond was designed and constructed to carry out the philosophy
that it is simpler to eliminate a problem than correct it a later
time," he said.
Now, 36 years after Marcott's speech and 18 years after widespread
uranium and molybdenum contamination prompted the Environmental
Protection Agency to designate a nearby neighborhood as a Superfund
site, the same kind of pronouncements have many residents frightened.
Cotter hopes, over the next seven years, to bring in up to 470,000
tons of mildly radioactive dirt from a Maywood, N.J., Superfund
site and use it to cover its tailings ponds.
tailings are not toxic or hazardous waste and they are appropriate
to be placed in disposal cells at the Cañon City mill,"
Cotter President Richard Cherry told state lawmakers in March.
But while Cotter has done much to improve the quality of its storage
facilities since 1966, including building all new lined impoundments,
the fact that contamination slowly trickled through the area's geology
and into yards and wells is an inescapable and unforgettable question
mark for many.
From the beginning of the mill's operation in 1958 until 1979, waste
from the uranium processing was discharged into unlined tailings
impoundments, which leaked and resulted in Lincoln Park wells and
soils being contaminated with uranium, molybdenum and selenium.
The mill sits in a shallow, arid basin about two miles south of
and elevated above Cañon City. To the south of the mill is
a prominent hogback. To the north, the slight crest of piñon-dotted
Raton Ridge rises between Cotter and the rural, apple tree-lined
Lincoln Park and its 4,000 residents.
Cotter's property, according to USGS surveys, "is moderately
rolling and slopes generally northeastward," toward Cañon
City, Fremont County's largest population center.
Sand Creek, a stream that runs during rains, crosses the mill property
from south to north and cuts a notch through Raton Ridge as it meanders
toward Lincoln Park and the Arkansas River.
To control flooding, the federal Soil Conservation Service in 1971
built two dams at gaps in Raton Ridge, one along Sand Creek and
the other in a ravine farther to the west.
According to investigations conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey,
"the primary migration pathway of raffinate-affected groundwater
was from the vicinity of the uranium mill site and the old tailings
ponds, down the Sand Creek drainage, through the Sand Creek gap."
Four years after the EPA listed Lincoln Park as a Superfund site,
the Sand Creek dam was buttressed by an additional clay barrier
to "further decrease groundwater flow through the
From the 1860s through the 1950s, coal miners excavated dozens of
miles of tunnels and caverns from beneath the site where the mill
was built and from beneath the surrounding populated areas of Cañon
A shaft to the Wolf Park Mine - at 1,084 feet below the surface,
the deepest coal shaft in the state - sits in the middle of the
Cotter property, directly adjacent to the tailings ponds.
In a 1989 deposition for a damages lawsuit against Cotter, Frank
Koklich, a prospector who worked for the company in the 1970s, testified
that he witnessed tailings and water being diverted directly into
the mine shaft on several occasions.
were rerouting the tailings from the old mill and I walked out there,
and this old raffinate was going down toward the Wolf Park shaft,"
Koklich told attorneys, adding that he told his supervisors about
it. "I said 'Boy, that's a hell of a thing, leaving that stuff
go down there.' "
In a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study conducted by the EPA
in 1986, officials concluded that "the Wolf Park mine shaft
is suspected of continuing to be a pathway for contaminant migration
But investigators in more recent studies have determined that any
contamination of Lincoln Park through the deep layers and formations
surrounding the mines is now unlikely.
According to a 1998 USGS report on the migration of water from the
Cotter property, impermeable layers of shale embedded in the Poison
Canyon Formation, the main geologic feature below the surface of
the property, don't permit water flow.
The report also said that even if there is contamination in the
Wolf Park shaft, there is little chance that is one of the main
in the Wolf Park Mine are not conducive to transport of dissolved
uranium and dissolved molybdenum; therefore, this deep migration
pathway is unlikely," the investigators concluded.
nothing down there but dead burros left by old miners," said
Cotter executive vice president Rich Ziegler, who has been with
the company for 30 years. "We've put that issue to bed. We
need to report the facts, and the fact is that there is no contamination
in the mines. The USGS did numerous studies to confirm that."