Longtime Uranium Mill Is Target of Neighbors' Cancer Suit : Pollution: Tailings from the first atomic bomb arrived in open rail cars. About 20 years later, home wells were found to be contaminated.


Sitting in the calico-covered swing on their back porch as their mare trots around in the corral by the red barn, Nard and Sara Claar seem to be living the American Dream.

Fruit trees and flowers cover their one-acre plot, not far from the cold streams and deep forests of the Rocky Mountains.

Sara, 38, grew up here in Lincoln Park on the edge of Canon City, a town of 13,000 people in southern Colorado. She and Nard, 40, never gave much thought to the Cotter Corp. uranium mill less than 2 miles from here.

Cotter was regarded as a solid citizen of the community. Next to the state prison system and its six facilities, it was Canon City's largest employer. In its heyday, the mill, owned by Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison, employed 250 people and processed 1,200 tons of rock a day.

That was before Sara became ill and 13 others on their block were found to have cancer or to have died of it.

Now the Claars and many others among the nearly 400 residents of Lincoln Park believe their neighborhood has been contaminated by the uranium processing.

"We just thought this was a natural occurrence. Everybody knew somebody who died of cancer," said Sara, who was bedridden 18 months with immune-deficiency problems and only recently became well enough to work around the house. Four members of her family have cancer.

The Claars and their neighbors now believe the mill, which the Environmental Protection Agency has designated a Superfund cleanup site--is the culprit. They note that in its 32 years the Cotter mill has received almost 100 state and federal pollution citations.

The uranium mill has been closed since 1987 because its product, a uranium concentrate called "yellowcake" for nuclear power plants--is no longer in demand. No date has been set for operations to resume.

The mill crushed, ground and leached uranium with acid to convert it to yellowcake. Tailings were dumped in piles next to the mill or in ponds used to control dust. Cotter operated one mill at the site from 1958 until 1979, then opened a newer, bigger one nearby to meet rising product demand.

The mill site also was home to 250 kilograms of radioactive leftovers from the first atomic bomb, called the "St. Louis Airport Cakes" because that's where the tailings were first stored. Cotter purchased the cakes in 1968 and shipped the radioactive residue--which contained the rare and carcinogenic radioactive isotope thorium-230--to Canon City in open railroad cars.

Cotter processed nearly two-thirds of the cakes to extract uranium, copper, cobalt and nickel. The leftovers were dumped into a lined holding pond at the mill.

A 1986 state report said there were holes in the pond's lining that allowed contaminated water to leach into the ground water.

Cotter's image as a model corporate citizen began to erode when traces of radioactive uranium began showing up in well water in Lincoln Park. Apparently, water contaminated with uranium had seeped into the ground beneath the mill and migrated to Lincoln Park wells. Uranium dust in the air added to the problem.

About the time Cotter was eyeing a bigger operation to take advantage of rising uranium prices, pollution regulators were starting to take a closer look at the plant.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation cited Cotter in 1980 for repeated overexposure of workers to uranium dust and for falsifying occupational health data in its reports to the state. The same year, Colorado public health officials accused Cotter of 23 violations of its license to handle radioactive materials.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, 1981, recommended that several Lincoln Park wells not be used for irrigation or livestock because of suspected contamination from the mill.

In March, 1986, a study commissioned by the state and done by GeoTrans-Rocky Mountain Consultants Inc. found that mining and milling activities at Cotter had seriously contaminated the surrounding area.

In August, 1988, the state sent Fremont County officials a letter warning that Lincoln Park residents faced potential risks to their health from contamination from the Cotter mill.

Cotter today is cleaning up the mill site under an $11-million environmental damage settlement reached in 1988 with the state of Colorado.

Phil Stoffey, the on-site cleanup coordinator for the state health department's Radiation Control Division, estimated that it will take Cotter 20 years to clean up the site under that plan.

In August, 1989, Lincoln Park residents' anger over the pollution problems and what they believed to be an abnormal cancer rate erupted in the form of a $550-million lawsuit, filed in federal court in Denver. The suit claims that uranium waste from the mill polluted both the ground water and the air and had damaged health and property in Lincoln Park.

Nard Claar thinks Cotter was given too much leeway as to the amount of much uranium waste it could discharge into the air. The limit was 30 tons a year.

"What happens to that? It blows over my house and my neighbor's house," he said. "To my knowledge, the Cotter Corp. didn't use us as guinea pigs, but with 30 tons of uranium being allowed, there was a radioactive cloud over this valley."

The state cancer register does not show an above-average incidence of the disease in Fremont County. The state does not keep such data on individual cities or neighborhoods.

State health officials say it is difficult to gauge the cancer risk from exposure to uranium mill wastes.

"It's long-range and low-level," Ken Weaver of the Radiation Control Division said. "We're not talking about the kind of radioactivity . . . where spending a few hours or days in front of the uranium pile will cause cancer. It's the long-range, long-term effects on health."

A 1981 federal study found evidence of kidney damage in 29 men who worked at Cotter. A 1987 attorney general's report said Lincoln Park residents are "receptors at risk" if they drink contaminated water, eat food irrigated with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil, or inhale dust or radon from mill sources.

The state in 1988 issued a warning that said Lincoln Park residents face a potential health risk by drinking water contaminated by the mill. Many Lincoln Park residents got their water from wells whose water later was found to be contaminated with uranium and molybdenum, a byproduct of uranium processing.

Outside Lincoln Park, opinion is more divided elsewhere in Canon City.

"Everybody living in Fremont County is not cowering and concerned that they will get cancer," said Pat Sherwood, executive director of the Canon City Chamber of Commerce. She said the media have implied that the entire community is concerned about becoming ill, "and it's just not true."

Jack Rothfleisch, the Cotter mill manager supervising the cleanup, does not think the cancer rate is abnormal in Lincoln Park.

"I think those people would have cancer if they were in the middle of Nebraska too," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't think anybody has been harmed in any way by the exposure to what we've done out here."

Cotter officials would not comment on the lawsuit, but were willing to speak about the company's special relationship with Canon City.

"The relationship of the Cotter Corp. with the community has been a close, enduring one in which the company and the community have shared in some good times and some bad times," said Joe McCluskey, a Cotter vice president and general manager of the firm's Lakewood office.

"The company and its employees have always appreciated the support of the community, and, likewise, the community has enjoyed the support of the Cotter Corp. over many years."

Meanwhile, Sara Claar is seeking treatment in Denver for her undiagnosed illness. The Claars say that one of their greatest frustrations is not knowing what they face.

"I cannot say that Cotter made me sick," Sara Claar said, "but I'd like to know what did. We've never been able to get a definite answer. Now, at least, they are testing."

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