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Concerns with cleanup of toxic Cañon City site draw attention of U.S. legislator


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CAÑON CITY, Colo. (KRDO) - The Cotter Uranium Mill in Cañon City closed in 2011, yet more than five million tons of toxic waste at the Superfund site hasn’t been cleaned up. Now, a U.S. legislator is getting involved.

U.S. Representative Brittany Pettersen (D-CO) wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May with concerns about the slow cleanup process of the shuttered uranium mill. In the letter, she included multiple requests to improve the health and safety of the community.


She wants to upgrade existing infrastructure at the site, including signage, warning the public of the radioactive contamination around Cotter Mill, and improve fencing around the facility.

Another request is for the deployment of air quality and radon level monitoring of air and water around the Superfund site. Pettersen said she is “concerned about the risk of toxic airborne substances that the Superfund site poses to the surrounding community.”

The EPA declined an interview about the site and Pettersen’s requests but provided a statement:

“The EPA has received Rep. Pettersen's letter and appreciates her interest in the Cotter/Lincoln Park site and commitment to the community. The Agency is currently drafting a response to Rep Pettersen’s letter which will be coming soon.”

Environmental Protection Agency

Cañon City is about three miles north of the Cotter Mill, which now looks like a ghost town with overgrown brush and abandoned vehicles. The 2,600-acre uranium mill opened in 1958. During operation, liquid wastes containing heavy metals were discharged into 11 impoundments. Three of those impoundments were unlined.

Cotter also produced yellowcake at the Cañon City mill, which is the product of milling uranium ore. The EPA said the mill operations and disposal practices released radioactive and metal contamination into the environment.

The mill closed in 2011. Three years later, the EPA investigated the mill and the cleanup process began.


“It's been kind of a start and stop cleanup,” said Emily Tracy, the president of the Community Advisory Group for the Superfund site. “It's been a very slow process.”

Tracy is considered a local expert on the Cotter Mill. She attended Cañon City’s first public meeting about the mill’s contamination in 1978.

“There are many of us who literally have lived with this for decades,” she said.


Tracy was there when the EPA declared the mill a Superfund site in 1984. She was there when the ownership of the property switched from Cotter Corporation to Colorado Legacy Land. She was there in February when Colorado Legacy Land announced it was insolvent and couldn’t fund the cleanup. Now, the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have taken over the process.

“I've seen very little, so we're just hoping that the agencies take this community seriously and really move as quickly as they can to do a proper clean up,” Tracy said.

Despite the risks to the community, Tracy said most residents aren’t concerned or aren’t aware of the Superfund site.

“Some people believe it was cleaned up years ago,” Tracy said. “Others think, ‘Oh, it's still there,’ but it's not a problem. Other people want to forget about it.”

She said no epidemiological study has been done on the health effects of the old mill, but she said a number of former employees have died of health complications, including cancer. Like Pettersen, Tracy wants to see air and water monitoring to understand the effects on the surrounding community.

“It takes so long to plow through this,” she said of the cleanup process. “It's just not acceptable for here or for any site going through something like this.”

Meanwhile, more than five million tons of toxic waste are buried just a couple of miles from homes.

The EPA is currently doing a health risk assessment of the property. But Tracy said after the assessment comes to a cleanup plan and then eventually actual cleanup. She said she hopes to still be alive to see it all completed.

“Cleanup will take years, so we're still a long way out, but we're going to live our life trying to get this cleaned up for the community,” Tracy said.