The Poisoned Well

What can a Superfund site in Colorado tell us about potential uranium mining and milling in Virginia?by Rose Jenkins

Sharyn Cunningham. Photo credit: Rose Jenkins.

Sharyn Cunningham and her family drank from a poisoned well for eight years. When they bought property in Cañon City, Colo., in 1994, they had their two wells tested—but just for normal water quality issues, not for radioactivity or heavy metals. They didn’t know that the groundwater below their home had been infiltrated by toxic waste from the Cotter Corporation’s uranium mill on the edge of town.

“There were a lot of people using their wells,” she told me. “I never thought about uranium.”

I was in Cañon City on the first of a series of stops of visits to communities in the West that have experience with the uranium industry. My purpose was to inform the debate over whether to allow uranium mining and milling in my home state of Virginia. In stories like Cunningham’s, there may be important lessons learned that Virginians should take to heart.

The history of the uranium mill, or processing plant, in Cañon City can be recounted as one failure after another in containing hazardous wastes. Early on, in the 1950s, the Cotter Corporation simply dumped mine tailings—the dirt and rock remaining after concentrated “yellowcake” is extracted from uranium ore—on the ground. During heavy rains, a toxic flood washed into the neighborhoods below. In 1971, Fremont County constructed an earthen dam to stop flooding, but contaminated water seeped through, underground. Later, the company built a wall with technology to filter out contaminants, but the filter clogged. Today, water that flows downhill from the site is pumped back into impoundment ponds.

But the tailings may still be releasing unseen contaminants into the groundwater. The piles were moved into huge pits equipped with a rubber liner, in 1979. But a series of recent studies indicates that the lined pits are leaking or are likely to leak.

In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the Cotter Mill site and the adjacent Lincoln Park neighborhood a Superfund site. But when Cunningham bought her home in Lincoln Park ten years later, she didn’t know that. She never thought about Cotter until 2002, she says, when the company announced a plan to import and store toxic waste from other parts of the country, starting with almost half a million tons of contaminated earth shipped out of New Jersey. In response, she helped to found the grassroots group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT). When the CCAT board met with a representative from the state health department, she learned for the first time that her well posed a health hazard.

“He said, ‘Well, nobody’s using their wells in Lincoln Park,’” Cunningham recalls. “And I raised my hand and said, ‘Um… we are.’ And he kind of freaked out.”

In the years that followed, hundreds of area residents who got sick—with cancers, bone diseases, kidney diseases, autoimmune diseases, and other problems—filed class action lawsuits. After years in court, they won settlements, although the company did not admit any fault.

Cunningham believes that her family’s health was also harmed, but she stayed out of the lawsuits—focusing instead on forcing the company to stop poisoning the ground, air, and water of Cañon City.

CCAT’s citizen activists succeeded in stopping the Cotter Corporation from importing hazardous wastes—materials so toxic that it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the places they came from to get rid of them.

As Cunningham describes it, elected officials assumed that public opinion would be evenly split between people who opposed the import plan on grounds of public health and people who supported it on grounds of economic development. Instead, CCAT rallied an overwhelming consensus against it. In a community of about 18,000, the organization gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan, including many business owners, health care workers, and educators. In 2005, the state denied the permit. CCAT went on to successfully advocate for three state laws affecting the uranium mill.

Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, feels that the public has been left out of the plan for cleaning up the Cotter uranium mill, where tailings ponds are being filled in with earth. Photo credit: Rose Jenkins.

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  1. interesting story. we visited Canon City and the Royal Gorge a few years back but were unaware of the poisoned well issues.

    the area is somewhat arid getting only about 1/3 of what Va gets so I’m a bit surprised that they get drinking water from wells and if you look at a satellite view, it’s pretty clear that grass and vegetation in Canon City and Lincoln Park are irrigated (probably from the Arkansas River). Wiki calls it a high desert.

    those wells would have to be deep and I would think – not fed by surface water but who knows but if that is an aquifer and it is polluted and the lady bought a house there – then there was a failure to disclose on the part of someone.

    tailings pits like that are not uncommon out west. normally they do not have outlets and I wish I knew if they typically do pollute deep aquifers.

    The problems in Va would involve what to do with the tailings and what would happen if such tailings were exposed to 40 inches of rain a year.

    exposed tailings would get into rivers. We know this from American Cyanamid Company mining on titanium on the Piney and Tye rivers which led to fish kills but also more or less permanently colored those river with reddish runoff from the tailings.

    This is a no-brainer in Va. any tailings would have to be “entombed” forever and you’d be putting a impervious cap on top and bottom and draining off anything that escaped.

    what you’re looking at out west if something you cannot do with today’s rules just like what you see on the Piney River could not happen with today’s rules either

  2. Darrell Avatar

    And remember, in Virginia they like to take hazardous waste and turn it into golf courses or kiddie parks.

  3. The one at Lincoln Park has a golf course nearby.

    by the way – folks ought to be at least aware that all of us generate toxic waste that gets deposited in the environment and has the potential of leaching into rivers, water tables and rivers.

    Most all of us, for instance put stuff in the waste stream that ends up in landfills that are better regulated and designed now days but still will be there for hundreds/thousands of years and if their containment caps are not replaced – will leak.

    We all use electricity and as a result we have nuclear waste.

    we all use drugs and we end up with those drugs in the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

    we certainly don’t want to ADD uranium tailings to that waste stream but we should all recognize that there is already a waste stream that we all take part in producing.

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