Once a mission critical part of the Manhattan Project, does its legacy now stand in the way of a region’s progress?
“Everything begins with mining. Everything!” So reads a sign posted inside the entrance to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville, Colorado, a former silver mining town that is sometimes referred to as the two-mile high city, owing to its 10,430-foot elevation. Yet few people pause to consider how minerals and other geologic materials contribute to our personal comfort and quality of life, never mind the challenges, risks, and rewards of extracting these valuable materials from the earth. But in the communities located within the Uravan Mineral Belt — a seventy by thirty mile area that encompasses sparsely populated parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah — milling and mining is cause for daily reflection, as local fortunes have tended to rise and fall with the health of the mining industry. This also explains why the residents of economically-depressed small towns in Colorado’s so-called West End — namely Nucla and Naturita, with populations of approximately seven hundred and five hundred, respectively — are hoping against hope that a proposed uranium mill will get built in nearby East Paradox, in spite of the potential health and environmental hazards. And why locals fear that the reputation of the uranium mining industry — and the history of the former town of Uravan — handicaps the region’s limited prospects for a better future.
Welcome to Uravan
Uravan can still be found on many maps of Colorado, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find. In fact, unless one knows where it was, it’s easy to miss. The only landmarks that recall the town’s five-decade long existence — a faded, yellowing marker sign at a rest stop along State Highway 141, and a non-descript one-lane bridge that crosses the San Miguel River — barely warrant a glance. But the lack of notice belies Uravan’s historical importance, both on a local and national level, thanks in large part to the carnonite ore (which contains radium, vanadium, and uranium) found in local mineral deposits.
Uravan’s history can be traced to the early twentieth century, when the Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, built what became known as the Joe Jr. Mill to process radium — a highly radioactive and then-very valuable substance that was used in luminous paint on instrument dials, compasses, and gun sights during World Wars I and II. Later, U.S. Vanadium (USV) purchased the radium-concentrating mill and local mining properties from Standard Chemical, and the mill began producing vanadium (primary use: to harden steel), before adding uranium production in 1938.
By that time USV had significantly expanded operations on site and formally named the town Uravan (derived from a combination of the words uranium and vanadium, the winning entry in a company-sponsored contest). Finally, in the early- to mid-1940s, USV built another mill at Uravan to process mill tailings into uranium oxide, or yellowcake. The yellowcake, in turn, was sent elsewhere, where it was enriched into bomb material, and used in the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
At the time, most of the mine and mill workers didn’t realize they were contributing to the country’s nuclear efforts. All they knew is that Uravan was regarded as an idyllic place to live — a company town that provided well-paying jobs, affordable housing, and the often intangible benefits that come with residing in a close-knit community where everybody knows you and your family.
“I lived there for four years [1949-52],” says de facto local historian Marie Templeton, now in her mid-eighties, who recalls that fully-furnished houses rented for just fifteen dollars a month, and that the company provided free water and trash removal. The town also had its own general store, post office, laundry, and “Rec Room,” the latter serving as a meeting place, dance hall, school, and theater, among other things. According to Templeton, Uravan was a very social place, and outdoor activities were always popular. “We had a ball team and the Red Cross sponsored swimming lessons for the whole area. All summer long everyone would get together and have weenie roasts and marshmallow roasts,” she remembers fondly.
Yet the miners who worked for the company were well aware that mining radioactive materials was a hazardous occupation, and that they were likely to die young, from lung cancer, the price to be paid for the chance to be above-average providers. Their employer knew it too. “The company started a file on all the miners and kept up with their health and what they were doing,” says Templeton, who notes that her husband quit mining after her father died from small cell lung cancer in 1956. “That shook up my husband and he found other employment, working at the mill until he retired,” she says.
Oddly, at least some miners weren’t particularly happy about the safety measures that were implemented at the behest of public health officials during the 1950s. “My husband said he didn’t like it when they ventilated the mines,” reports Templeton. “There had been a controlled climate; it wasn’t too hot and wasn’t too cold, so you could work without getting sweaty. [But after the safety improvements] he said that the wind came through like a cyclone and froze you to death.”
Even more notable, perhaps, is that radiation exposure from uncontrolled uranium mill tailings and contaminated mill equipment (which was dumped on a hill above town) didn’t give Uravan residents pause. The sandy-looking mill tailings served as bedding for local construction projects and as backfill for water lines. Gardeners even added tailings to their soil. Never mind that, says Templeton. “They haven’t proved that living in Uravan has been disastrous for your health — ever. In the 1960s and ’70s they did studies of the whole population. I know because I filled out the forms.”
A study published in the Journal of Radiological Protection appears to back up Templeton’s statement. “Mortality among residents of Uravan, Colorado who lived near a uranium mill, 1936-84” (2007) looked at causes of mortality for 1,905 men and women who lived in Uravan for at least six months. The study revealed “a significant excess of lung cancer among males who had been employed as underground miners,” wrote the authors, who attributed this to high levels of radon in uranium mines coupled with the heavy use of tobacco products. But the study found “no evidence that environmental radiation exposures above natural background association with the uranium mill operations increased the risk of cancer.”
Nucla, Naturita, and beyond
The lack of radiation-related health problems experienced by the residents of Uravan explains, in part, why the people of nearby towns like Nucla and Naturita are so frustrated by opposition to the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, which was proposed in late 2008 by Denver-based Energy Fuels Corporation, a company that positions itself as “America’s largest conventional uranium and vanadium producer … supplying domestic fuel for clean, carbon-free, and affordable nuclear energy.” If constructed, Piñon Ridge would become the first new uranium mill built in this country in more than three decades, and join the White Mesa Mill (Blanding, Utah), as the only conventional uranium mills currently operating in the U.S.
“People are afraid of the mill,” says Jane Thompson, of Paradox, Colorado, who serves as president of the Rimrocker Historical Society, an organization dedicated to preserving the cultural and natural history of the West End — including Uravan. In particular she’s referring to the residents of Telluride, Colorado, and the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based environmental organization that has been fighting to keep the mill from getting built. “The people who live [in this area] and have lived in it aren’t afraid,” she emphasizes, proving her point by handling a jar that contains a chunk of uranium ore, which sits on a shelf in the back office of the Rimrocker Historical Society Museum in Naturita, alongside the copy paper.
Yet the mere act of driving through the region makes some passerby’s skittish, a reaction that strikes locals as downright silly. “My husband’s sister lived in Oregon and he had a daughter who came to visit us,” recalls Templeton. “We were jeeping around and I saw a little piece of yellow ore that had fallen off a truck probably. I said ‘I’ll show you a piece.’ She got out and turned pale. She wanted to get out of there right away because she was going to get cancer from looking at it.”
That kind of reaction makes it understandable why Montrose County residents (home to Uravan, Nucla, Naturita, Paradox, and several other towns) are particularly sensitive about being characterized as somehow tainted. “When we go somewhere and people ask if we glow in the dark it makes us madder than mad,” begins Templeton, who believes that the mere thought of uranium terrifies people. “I think that’s what’s going on with Sheep Mountain Alliance. They are on their computers looking up things and they haven’t a clue. You listen to them and you go, ‘Oh my god, those people must be idiots’,” she says with a laugh.
But Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA) — a grassroots citizen organization dedicated to the preservation of the environment in the Telluride Region and Southwest Colorado — takes the position that “sixty years of uranium mining and milling have left a legacy of contamination on Colorado’s Western Slope,” and that “despite lofty rhetoric, industry and government are on track to repeat the mistakes of the past.” In particular, SMA is concerned about the potential for new air, water, and soil contamination (not only from the new mill, but from the reactivation of many old uranium mines in the region) — which would likely reduce property values, and also harm the tourism and recreation industries in the prosperous Telluride area. SMA also points out that the boom and bust cycles of uranium mining create unsustainable economies for local communities, with Uravan the quintessential example of what can happen when the price of uranium falls precipitously.
The Decline of Uravan
Between the mid-1940s and early 1970s Uravan was a boom town, thanks largely to the federal government’s desire to ensure an adequate supply of fissionable material for the defense program. But in 1971 the government ceased its uranium acquisition program (at which point the price of uranium began to fall due to over-supply), the beginning of a steady decline that accelerated after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which led to increased public concern about radioactive sites. Making matters worse, new nuclear power plants were not being built as quickly as expected, and the government began to sell its stockpiles, further reducing the price. From 1981-84 the Uravan mill operated just six months of the year, after which the facility was closed and Union Carbide and Umetco (which had acquired the 680-acre site), accepted responsibility for the forthcoming Superfund cleanup, which got underway shortly after the last resident departed and the town was closed on December 31, 1986.
Among other things, cleanup workers were charged with: capping and re-vegetating ten million cubic yards of radioactive tailings, disposing of 530,000 cubic yards of radioactive raffinate crystals, and securing twelve million yards of tailings waste along the San Miguel River. The work took two decades to complete and cost approximately $127 million, of which upwards of $50 million came from federal funds (the portion of the cleanup attributable to government production).
Former residents don’t disagree that a certain degree of cleanup was in order, but what really rankles them is that the EPA’s Remedial Action Plan required that the entire town — and everything in it — be torn apart, shredded, and buried, with the tailings and debris cached under “engineered earthen covers” designed to survive a thousand-year storm. That included everything from bulldozers and dump trucks to the Coca-Cola bottles left behind at the soda fountain.
According to the book “Uravan, Colorado: One Hundred Years of History,” which was produced by Umetco Minerals Corporation in 2002, cleanup objectives included “removing and disposing [of] contaminated soils, long-term containment and stability of the tailings, protecting groundwater, and control of radon emanation.” Workers achieved radon emanation control by installing ten-foot-thick covers over the tailings, including a low permeability layer of clay, and other layers designed to prevent frost damage, or damage by deep-rooted plants or burrowing animals. The underlying layers were topped by a surface cover consisting of sized rock.
“I don’t think people here feel like the whole town needed to be buried,” says Thompson, who admits she absconded with Uravan’s “Mill Drive” street sign (and three other metal street signs), before cleanup work got under way. By 2007, all that remained on site was the boarding house and the Rec Hall, which the Rimrocker Historial Society hoped to convert to a museum. But that year Dow Chemical, which had purchased Umetco, burned the buildings to the ground. “I believe Dow didn’t want the liability,” speculates Thompson, adding that “they also claimed the buildings had mold and rats.”
Uravan today, and the West End of tomorrow
Today, anyone who finds his or her way to the rugged, mostly fenced-in Uravan site is confronted by signs that read: “Caution: Radioactive Materials” and “No Trespassing – by Order of the U.S. Department of Energy.” Some warning signs are more specific — and probably worth heeding — as a September 2010 report prepared for the EPA notes that, “two isolated hot spots were recently identified [one of which is fenced-in and one not] … and plans are being developed to address these spots.”
Other than the warning signs — and the Umetco Minerals office on Highway 141 — there is nothing left to see, but that hasn’t stopped the Rimrockers from holding an annual picnic on the last Saturday of August, when former residents return to eat, drink, and reminisce about days gone by.
The 2012 picnic — held on what used to be Uravan’s baseball field, adjacent to the San Miguel River — attracted a thousand people, up from 450, 250, and 100 in the four years since Thompson and her sister took over the planning, before which time there seemed little interest in continuing the event. “We went through the phone books of Grand Junction and Montrose [Colorado] and picked out people that we knew had lived in Uravan and sent them a postcard,” says Thompson, explaining how they reinvigorated the picnic, which has also benefitted from the addition of the Rimrockers’ Facebook page.
“This year’s picnic showed us how hungry the people of Uravan are to reconnect, they just didn’t know how,” continues Thompson, who lived in Uravan from 1956 until she got married in the mid-1970s, noting that both her husband’s father and her grandfather died of lung cancer. “There were people who hadn’t been back in forty or fifty years. Everyone just wanted to visit; you couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” she says, noting that organizers ask picnic goers to line up for lunch according to the block they lived on, which encourages onetime neighbors to reconnect.
Interestingly, while locals frown on outsiders making light of their situation vis-à-vis radiation contamination, many former residents arrive at the picnic wearing yellow & black T-shirts that state: “Caution: Radioactive Material – I lived in Uravan, Colorado!” And in 2011, one guest brought a yellow cake for dessert (with yellow and black icing, of course), which was emblazoned with a radioactive warning symbol and the inscription: “Yellow Cake: Eat at Your Own Risk.”
The picnic isn’t all sweetness and light, though. The event is co-sponsored by the Cold War Patriots, a non-profit membership organization made up of uranium and nuclear weapons workers that recognizes how “many of us have become ill from radiation or toxic exposures” and helps “fellow workers and their families understand the benefits available to them.” Another co-sponsor, Professional Case Management, provides in-home nursing care to sufferers of chronic diseases, and specializes in illnesses relating to uranium milling and mining, as well as nuclear weapons plant employment.
But when picnic goers are not reminiscing, or lamenting their ailments, discussion turns to the future of the site — and the future of the region. For their part, the Rimrockers hope to build a museum dedicated to Uravan and the mining industry that supported it — and to construct an RV Park and boat ramp (on the same property) in an effort to attract tourists.
But what the area really needs is a sizeable source of lucrative jobs, the kind that would come with a new mill and rapid revival of the local uranium mining industry. These days, many West End residents are forced to commute long distances into Telluride — which is best-known for its ski resort and music and film festivals — to work construction and low-paying service industry jobs, cleaning hotel rooms and the like.
“The people in Nucla and Naturita have a lot of resentment for Telluride,” begins Suzan Beraza, director of the forthcoming documentary film Uranium Drive-In, which explores the challenges facing the West End — and how residents have chosen to respond to these challenges. “But the people of Telluride don’t have the same resentment for Nucla and Naturita,” she continues. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe they think about them at all. In many ways that is even more a slap in the face.”
It isn’t just that Telluride (itself a former mining community) managed to successfully reinvent itself in recent decades to become a thriving recreation destination. It’s that Telluride appears to maintain a “Not in My Backyard” attitude, even as it sends its trash to a landfill outside Naturita. And even as local utility company, San Miguel Power Association, built an unsightly solar farm in the picturesque Paradox Valley, one which offers single, 235-watt PV panels for $705, which provide $45 worth of electricity per year. The target customers? You guessed it — the residents of Telluride.
But according to Beraza, SMA is a convenient scapegoat — a ready excuse for Energy Fuels to claim it can’t move forward — should it decide to abandon the Piñon Ridge project. The reality is that if the economics make sense, the mill will get built.
“A lot of people are waiting to see if the mill is going to go through,” admits Thompson, who drives a Toyota Yaris with the bumper sticker: Less Kooks, More Nukes. “If they start building the mill and the price of uranium goes up, then a lot of the area mines will open back up.”
If not, the prognosis is dire. “There are no jobs and nothing to bring in,” she continues, a sentiment echoed by Templeton, who says: “Drive around Nucla and Naturita and see how many houses are for sale. We’re dead in the water without it.”
This explains why the local communities are optimistic that a second uranium boom would be a dream-come-true, even if the mining industry doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart. “Maybe the short term gain is so important that they are willing to almost sacrifice — that’s probably too strong a word — for the good of their families and community. Yes, there were negative impacts in the past, but they believe it will be better for them this time,” explains Beraza.
The local communities may be right. Industry insiders argue that a new uranium mill would be significantly “cleaner and greener” than the mills of the past, thanks to lessons learned (i.e., expensive cleanups) and laws, regulations, and best practices that have evolved considerably in recent decades.
But first, there has to be a “next time.” In June of this year Energy Fuels acquired Denison Mines (owner of the aforementioned White Mesa Mill). “That has prompted speculation that they don’t need the Piñon Ridge mill anymore, and that they are going through the permitting process so that in the future they can sell it. Some people believe they are doing it so that they can store waste,” says Beraza.
Regardless, the residents of the West End will take the mill any way they can get it. “While they seem willing to try other things, uranium is something they know,” concludes Beraza. “But they seem to be realizing that after five years [the mill] is probably not going to happen anytime soon.”