Cañon City uranium contamination looms over Montrose mill battle
MONTROSE — For many in Montrose County and surrounding counties and communities in Southwest Colorado, the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill really is a clear-cut case of NIMBYism.
But for residents of Cañon City area, some of whom made the long trip to a special-use permit hearing in Montrose earlier this month, declaring “not in my back yard” could have spared them decades of health problems associated with the metal the Navajo Indians call “yellow death.”
Rebecca Lorenz of Colorado Springs was one of the attorneys who in the 1990s convinced two separate federal juries to award Cañon City area residents millions in damages stemming from radiation poisoning produced by Cotter Corp.’s uranium mill near Lincoln Park that was declared an EPA Superfund Cleanup site.
At a hearing before the Montrose County commissioners earlier this month, Lorenz read a laundry list of illnesses stemming from Cotter Corp. uranium processing that began in the 1950s and ran well into the 1980s: cancer, arthritis, bronchitis, infertility, birth defects and learning disabilities, to name a few.
She urged the commissioners to consider those considerable health risks before approving a special-use permit on Sept. 30 for a Canadian company, Energy Fuels, which wants to process uranium ore in far western Montrose County in the Paradox Valley between Bedrock and Naturita.
Cañon City resident Sharyn Cunningham also made the long drive to Montrose, telling the commissioners that “ore from this area and tailings are less than a mile from my house.” She related the story of Cotter Corp. chemist Lynn Boughton, who worked at the Cañon City mill for decades and fought Cotter and Pinnacle Insurance for years to secure a settlement after contracting cancer.
Cotter Corp.’s Glen Williams also attended the hearing, acknowledging his company’s problems processing ore near Cañon City. But he said technology has changed dramatically since the state’s uranium-mining heyday, and he urged the commissioners to approve the Paradox Valley mill so mines Cotter still owns and operates in the area will have a much closer processing facility. Milling involves leaching uranium ore with sulfuric acid to produce uranium oxide, or yellow cake, which can then be converted into fuel rods for nuclear power plants.
“The [Paradox Valley] area is nice, but this county was built on natural resources,” Williams said.
Frank Filas, environmental manager for a U.S. subsidiary of Ontario-based Energy Fuels, said Cañon City is ancient history in his industry, with Cotter using unlined tailings ponds that led to groundwater contamination.
“You just can’t use [tailings] for sandboxes the way they were in the ’50s and ’60s, but comparing our situation to historic situations is a little disingenuous,” Filas said, adding his company will use state-of-the-art, double-lined ponds in the Paradox Valley.
Montrose internal medicine specialist Dr. Christine Gieszl and others cited numerous federal studies and a 2007 Colorado Medical Society (CMS) finding that uranium mining and milling pose a major public health risk. But Filas discounted the CMS decision.
“Our feeling is that decision was mostly political based on opposition to Powertech in Weld County,” Filas said, referring to a proposed uranium mine 15 miles northeast of Fort Collins that has now been opposed by the cities and towns of Fort Collins, Greeley, Ault, Wellington, Timnath and Nunn, according to the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
There are a number of other concerns associated with a revival of Colorado’s uranium mining industry to meet a growing call for carbon-free nuclear power in the United States and around the world, including transportation of ore and other mining materials on two-lane mountain roads.
The Montrose County commissioners have finished taking public testimony on the proposed mill and appear ready to make a decision at their next hearing on the proposal, set for 10 a.m., Sept. 30, at Friendship Hall in the Montrose County Fairgrounds and Event Center.
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