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A leak in the system

By Eric Frankowski
The Daily Record News Group
Copyright 2002

CAÑON 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 flooding.

"Still 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."

"The 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.

"The 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 … gap."

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 City.

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.

"They 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 off site."

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 contamination avenues.

"Conditions 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.

"There's 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."

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