Cañon City activist chooses legislation over litigation in battle with uranium mill

Sharyn Cunningham and her family bought five acres in Cañon City’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1994, and for eight years they used a drinking water well contaminated by the nearby Cotter uranium mill.

Drums of uranium mill concentrate.

They only discovered the toxic minerals in their drinking water after Cotter was purchased in 2000 by General Atomics – makers of Predator drones and a major player in the nation’s nuclear industry – and promptly announced plans to begin storing radioactive waste from an EPA Superfund site in New Jersey.

Cunningham says she and her family suffered various illnesses resulting from the contamination of their well but decided not to sue, even as other area residents fought Cotter in a pair of class-action lawsuits. She refuses to discuss her health problems because she wants to focus on legislatively changing Cotter’s corporate culture.

Because Cunningham said the real estate agent and seller of her property did not reveal the well’s contamination – and because health officials and Cotter were not compelled to notify them – she is now putting her considerable energy into a bill currently working its way through the state House.

Choosing a new law over a big settlement

HB 1348 (pdf), scheduled for a second reading in the House today, would require Cotter and other operators of uranium processing facilities to send an annual letter notifying residents with water wells near groundwater contamination.

Spending more than a decade in court for an undisclosed settlement would pale in comparison to lawmakers requiring that letter, Cunningham insists, again declining to address her own health concerns.

“I really don’t want to go into all of that because mainly we want this letter. We do not want people exposed to something without their knowledge,” Cunningham said in a recent phone interview.

Juries found for the plaintiffs in two separate class-action lawsuits dating back to the 1990s, but the awards were kept confidential as part of the settlements.

“People may have been compensated – we don’t’ know to what degree because all of that was sealed – but it didn’t change Cotter’s corporate behavior and it didn’t cause them to use expensive new technology to clean it up quickly, and that is why we focused on the cleanup part of the bill,” Cunningham said.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Buffie McFadyen (D-Pueblo West) and in the Senate by Sen. Ken Kester (R-Las Animas), would also require uranium mill operators to clean up existing problems before applying for expansion permits; allow more public input during the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s annual cleanup reviews and require state licensing when companies accept “alternate feed,” or toxic waste from outside industrial or medical sources.

Cotter has revealed plans to refurbish the Cotter Mill, located about a mile from Lincoln Park, where approximately 6,000 people live between Cañon City and the Arkansas River in unincorporated Fremont County. The company hopes to resume full operations in 2014, processing uranium ore from mines in New Mexico.

Amory Quinn of General Atomics’ Uranium Resources Group did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.

Cotter has a long legacy of contamination violations in the area, dating back to the state’s first big uranium boom in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War and dawn of the atomic age.

The new nuclear age

Federal lawmakers, including Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, have introduced legislation to spark a nuclear renaissance as part of a comprehensive energy strategy to reduce dependence on foreign fuel and scale back greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal and natural gas. Uranium mining claims and milling and processing proposals in Colorado are on the rise as a result.

At a Montrose County hearing last summer on a proposed mill near the Utah border, a Cotter official said technology has improved so much that it’s apples to oranges to compare the toxic legacy of the past to industry practices today.

“They may be asking for the sins of the fathers to be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean that problems at the [Cañon City] facility don’t persist,” Environment Colorado’s Matthew Garrington said.

Cunningham says impoundment ponds for storing toxic waste that were unlined in the 50s are now lined, but that the only real change in recent years is the EPA now prohibits the ponds from being more than 40 acres compared to the 150-acre pond Cotter built in 1979 and now leaks.

In 2002, Cunningham helped form Coloradans Citizen Against ToxicWaste, a nonprofit advocacy group that successfully got the state to reject Cotter’s bid to store the radioactive waste from New Jersey at the Cañon City mill.

“If you look at the amount of money that our government subsidizes this [nuclear] industry and the amount of money that’s been spent cleaning up these sites … and if you look at the costs versus the benefit – and nobody’s doing that in an honest way – the nuclear renaissance is going to be very questionable as to how beneficial it will be,” Cunningham said.

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