$16 million awarded in uranium suit
By Mike McPhee
Denver Post Staff Writer

Friday, June 29, 2001 - A federal jury Thursday ordered a uranium-processing company to pay $16.3 million to 32 people who suffered radiation poisoning and other ailments while living near a mill outside Can~on City.

The amount does not include interest or future medical costs awarded to 30 of the plaintiffs who first filed suit against the Cotter Corp. in 1991. Attorney Rebecca Lorenz said the total will exceed $30 million.

Three of the plaintiffs have died in the decade since the suit was filed.

"I'm elated. Finally, the Cotter Corp. is being held accountable," said Joe Dodge, 67, whose wife, Thelma, died of radiation-induced leukemia. Thursday would have been their 48th wedding anniversary.

Dodge, who owned a thoroughbred ranch next to the Cotter mill in Lincoln Park outside Can~on City, was the original plaintiff in the lawsuit.

His daughters, Rhonda Butson and Yvonne Pegoraro, could barely speak through tears of joy.

"This is justice for the death of our mother," Butson said. "Cotter has been terrible. They still don't think they've done anything wrong."

John Watson, Cotter's lead attorney, said the case will be appealed.

"They will never see this money," Watson said as the courtroom cleared. "We feel completely confident that the 10th Circuit (Court of Appeals) will overturn this verdict."

This is the fourth trial involving pollution claims against the Cotter Mill, which was declared a Superfund site in 1984 and closed three years later.

A 1998 trial, which gave 13 plaintiffs roughly $5 million, was overturned on appeal and was retried as part of this case. Both trials were presided over by U.S. District Judge Zita Weinshienk. One case in 1992 was settled and a case in 2000 is being appealed.

Denver-based Cotter processed uranium ore at the mill starting in the early 1950s, grinding it into a powder and forming it into "yellowcake" biscuits for shipment elsewhere.

Testimony during the seven-week trial showed that the fine, yellow radioactive dust drifted across Dodge's horse farm, clotheslines, houses and into the soil and water.

The mill also handled heavy metals such as arsenic, cobalt, nickel and lead.

"People lost everything," said Suzelle Smith, one of three lawyers from Los Angeles with expertise in uranium pollution brought in to try the case. "Joe Dodge lost his wife and his horses. He lost his farm. People lost vegetables. They had birth defects, disfigurements."

Sonja and Don Luna's son Brett, 28, was born with a cleft palate, respiratory problems and mental retardation.

"I thought my heart was going to burst when they announced the verdicts," said Don Luna. "This is for Brett. We won't be around forever to care for him. He will have to have help all his life. He doesn't deserve what he has."

Jury forewoman Mary Crawford of Denver said, "This was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was long and complicated."

"I cried for two days," said juror Sandy Todd. "We just tried to do the right thing."