Last winter, when Deyon Boughton read in her local newspaper that 470,000 tons of "mildly contaminated soil" might be coming to rest at the uranium mill near her home, she winced.
Her husband, Lynn, had been a chemist at the mill from 1958 to 1979, and died of lymphoma that doctors linked to uranium exposure. Learning that the Cotter Corp. mill, which has been in and out of production for years, was now in the business of storing radioactive waste hit Boughton hard.
She wasn't alone. The Cañon City suburb of Lincoln Park, home to 3,900 residents, is just a few miles from the mill and its tailings ponds.
The community, about 40 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, is also close to the Arkansas River and the Royal Gorge, and enjoys a sunny desert climate that has lured hundreds of retirees, some of whom have built $500,000 homes near the mill in the last few years.
Slipped by unnoticed
The proposal may not seem surprising, considering that the West has become the destination of choice for storing the nation's toxic waste; dumps planned for Nevada's Yucca Mountain and the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah have been vehemently, and publicly, debated.
But the deal in Cañon City, which would have been Colorado's first major waste shipment, nearly slipped by, unnoticed not just by the locals, but by the state as well.
Soon after the Cañon City Daily Record published the story, a group of citizens formed Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT), and tried to prevent the Cotter Corp. from accepting low-level radioactive soil from a Superfund site in New Jersey.
At the time, there were no laws requiring Cotter to inform residents of its plans. Most locals learned about the shipment as Boughton did -- in the local paper.
Stalling the shipment
The coalition began to hold public meetings, demanding that local officials refuse the company's request for a new license that would allow it to take the New Jersey waste.
The coalition also contacted state-level officials, and last April, Gov. Bill Owens quickly signed a bill requiring tighter controls on businesses storing radioactive waste, ultimately stalling the shipment until Cotter can meet the law's new requirements.
"If Cotter gets by with this, someone might think, 'Hey, this is a good business to get into,' " said Sharyn Cunningham, co-chair of CCAT. "The people of Colorado haven't fully realized the danger."
For longtime residents in Cañon City, controversy surrounding the mill is familiar.
Beginning in 1958, the Cotter mill processed ore into uranium oxide or "yellowcake" -- the fuel of nuclear reactors.
In those early production years, the mill discharged contaminated waste into unlined tailings ponds -- standard practice at the time. Heavy metals and radioactive material leached into the soil and groundwater, contaminating wells, and tailings dust blew off dried ponds.
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency designated Lincoln Park a Superfund site.
By the late '80s, uranium prices had plunged, Cotter shut down most of its operation, and new homes sprouted near the mill. "It was dormant then," said Cunningham, who moved to Lincoln Park nine years ago. "People thought it was out of business."
Cotter has since moved the tailings to new lined ponds, paid for residents to hook up to city water, and agreed to monitor about 40 wells in the area for uranium and molybdenum. But the company is not out of business.
Trying new things
Cotter now wants to begin producing zirconium, a heavy-minerals sand used mainly in the ceramics industry, says Rich Ziegler, Cotter executive vice president. Accepting the soil shipments from Maywood Chemical Co. in New Jersey would provide needed capital.
In addition, Cotter plans to use the soil to cover "beaches" of dry tailings that release radon and must be sprayed to contain the dust, Ziegler says.
But in September, the EPA came back to inspect the mill and found leaky tanks, spills and more than 3,000 drums of calcium fluoride that Cotter had been paid to dispose of nearly two years ago.
The EPA wrote to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates the state's radioactive materials in an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, that it had "serious questions" about the company's capacity to handle more radioactive waste.
Regardless of Cotter's poor record, the state health department has allowed the mill to continue to process tailings for residual uranium.
From cancer to gout
The company also plans to resubmit an environmental assessment in the hopes of qualifying to accept the New Jersey waste. The study is required under the new state law signed by Gov. Owens, but the health department rejected Cotter's initial assessment for "inadequacies."
"[The New Jersey waste's] radioactivity is very low," said David Butcher, with the health department. "You could make a case that the natural soils around the [Cañon City] area are more radioactive than the material in Maywood."
But residents don't trust the Cotter Corp. They cite two private tests in the last decade taken after Cotter's "cleanup" that showed high levels of radioactive material in town and at the local elementary school.
And they point to years of health problems: Just last year, a federal judgment forced Cotter to pay more than $41 million to 26 landowners who said they had suffered waste-linked problems ranging from cancer to gout.
Nonetheless, the issue has divided the community, where half of the 115 employees who work at Cotter have already been let go.
Some locals contend that those who chose to live near the mill have no right to complain. "It reminds us of people who buy land next to an airport and then whine about the noise," wrote George Turner, director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, in a Record guest column.
The board of the Fremont Economic Development Corporation passed a resolution supporting Cotter for the economic benefits it provides, including a payroll of $3.5 million.
But Cunningham and Boughton are hopeful they can block the shipment permanently.
"We can't undo what happened to Lynn," Boughton said, speaking of her husband. "But can't we stop it from happening in the future?"
This article originally appeared in High Country News. The author writes from Cortez, Colo.
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