By Mike McPhee
(The Denver Post)
A federal jury Wednesday awarded $2.9 million to 14 residents of Canon City who were contaminated by the Cotter Corp. uranium-processing mill during the 1970s and '80s.
The jury took only six hours to reach a decision after listening to nearly 25 days of testimony, presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Zita Weinshienk. Included in the verdict was a provision to provide the 14 residents with lifetime monitoring for cancer and other illnesses.
Nearly 30 witnesses testified during the trial, some telling how pollution, mostly dusty powder, from the mill contaminated the residents' groundwater, vegetable gardens, lawns and homes. Much of the pollution was radioactive. Other pollutants included heavy metals such as molybdenum and arsenic.
The mill, which opened in 1958 and closed in 1987, produced a dust form of uranium called "yellowcake" for nuclear power plants. The mill and the surrounding area, located in Lincoln Park just south of Canon City, was declared a Superfund Site in 1984, making it eligible for federal funds for clean up as one of the nation's most polluted sites.
The 14 residents have suffered a variety of illnesses, cancer and arthritis. One woman, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. Handicapped rodeo rider Jack Hadley has a condition known as multiple exostosis, or abnormal bony growths throughout the body. One expert testified that Hadley's multiple exostosis was caused by his mother's exposure to molybdenum while pregnant.
Weinshienk, in her instructions to the jury, said that Cotter already had been ruled to be negligent, that the jury merely needed to decide whether the pollution caused the injuries and death.
"This verdict reflects the obvious facts, which Cotter has denied for decades, that the properties of these people were contaminated, that these people were hurt and confirms by a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Cotter ignored the rights and safety of the public for its own financial benefit," said Suzelle Smith, a Los Angeles lawyer who led a team of lawyers for the plaintiff.
Attorneys for Cotter did not return phone calls Thursday.
The 14 residents were the first of four groups of plaintiffs, totaling 67 residents of Lincoln Park, who are suing the Cotter Corp. The 14 were picked as a cross-section of the injuries and maladies. The next trial is expected to start early next year.
Meanwhile, Cotter has filed an application to reopen the mill as early as this year.