In Colorado and Virginia residents debate whether proposed uranium mills will help or hinder their economies.
To reach the place where an entire town had been dismantled and buried in a Superfund cleanup, I traveled through coils of red rock canyons—sheer cliffs that enclosed the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers in southwest Colorado. My guide, Jennifer Thurston, who directs of a mining watchdog group called INFORM Colorado, told me that the tops of these mesas are dotted with old uranium mines—mines that once fed ore to the mill at Uravan.
Rough gravel roads took us to the spot on the San Miguel River where the town of Uravan used to be, the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state of Colorado determined the town to be so contaminated that it was unsafe for people to live there. The town, which was home to over 600 people, was evacuated as part of a Superfund cleanup spanning 1986 to 2008. Then every structure—the mill, schools, houses, playgrounds—was torn down, shredded, and buried. Today, the site is off-limits, barricaded by barbed wire fences and yellow signs that warn of radioactive exposure.
Uravan was a company town, named for two minerals that are found together in the ore here—uranium, which is used to make nuclear fuel, and vanadium, which is used to harden steel. Because nearly every family that lived in the town worked at the mines or the mill, nearly all of the residents were struck a personal blow by the epidemic of lung cancer that took place among the miners.
During the last uranium boom—roughly from the 1940s through the 1970s—miners labored in poorly ventilated tunnels that trapped radon from the radioactive ore and diesel exhaust from their machinery. In addition, cigarette smoking in the mine shafts was widespread. Many of the men who worked in these conditions died of lung disease, and others struggle with it still.
But when I asked Bill Chadd, who mined uranium for twelve years, lived in Uravan for ten, and suffers from lung disease, if he thought that a proposed new uranium mill would be good for the area, he said, “You bet.”
Over breakfast in the lobby of the Ray Motel in Naturita, Colo., near the former town of Uravan, he told me, “It would open up about 300 jobs.”
Energy Fuels Inc., has proposed to build a new mill, the Piñon Ridge Mill, less than 10 miles from Uravan. On the other side of the country, a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc., proposes to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—my home state.
Uranium has never been extracted in Virginia, but communities in the West have a long history with uranium mining. I have been researching their stories, so Virginians can learn from their experience.
In southwest Colorado I found that the people whose lives were most intertwined with the uranium industry—those who had benefited most directly from its jobs and suffered most intensely from its mistakes—were most ready to give it another go.
Other people, who live and work at a greater remove from the industry, in towns that are prospering without it, see the Piñon Ridge Mill as unacceptably risky. They consider the proposed mill an environmental and public health threat, and they also think that it could derail economic growth in the region. Thurston, who lives in Telluride, Colo., some 50 miles from the Piñon Ridge site, told me, “A uranium mill, in reality, is a radioactive waste dump. The stigma of having radioactive facilities in your community makes it more difficult to attract people.”
Southwest Colorado, where dramatic red mesas are streaked with greenish layers that contain uranium ore, played a central role in the history of nuclear development. The radium that Marie Curie used in her experiments was mined and processed just outside of Telluride. Later, at Uravan, uranium was secretly produced for use in the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. During the Cold War, the uranium industry boomed as the U.S. raced to stockpile nuclear weapons.
It crashed after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, when public opinion turned against nuclear power. International treaties that cooled the nuclear arms race kept the price of uranium low. Most of the 1,200 uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt (which runs through four counties in southwest Colorado and Utah) were abandoned. Uravan was obliterated, and nearby towns, like Naturita and Nucla, dwindled.
But after three decades of moribund markets for uranium, demand is up, and communities in Colorado, as in Virginia, are faced with a question: do they want the uranium industry here?
In Naturita, the answer I heard was: Yes, absolutely.
Chadd told me, “Anybody that’s working here is working out of town.” The loss of jobs in the uranium industry has caused the population here in the west end of Montrose County, to shrink by half since 1960, after it more than quadrupled between 1930 and 1960.
Sherri Ross, who works as a receptionist at The Ray Motel, said, “I think [the mill] would bring the area back considerably, and it would provide jobs and put families back into small areas where they want to be.”
The former miners and relatives of miners who had come to the motel for breakfast that morning railed against conditions in the unventilated mines that had made so many people sick—but they believe that uranium mining today, using improved standards, is reasonably safe.
Ross said, “A lot of the problem is, a lot of people in the outside world, they heard about the cancers. My dad had cancer. He died three months after the diagnosis. A lot of people they had cancers that was linked to the uranium mining… But back in the day, they didn’t have the knowledge that they’ve got now. They didn’t have the radon testing. They didn’t have the air shafts. They didn’t have OSHA. “
According to Energy Fuels Inc., the Piñon Ridge Mill would directly employ 85 people, and it would create another 200 jobs in the area by spurring renewed uranium mining activity.
Dianna Reams, the president of the Nucla-Naturita Chamber of Commerce, urged me to look around the towns to get a sense of how badly they need economic development. I saw a line of boarded store windows. I saw a burned building that no one had bothered to rebuild or tear down. I saw posters on the walls of Nucla High School, depicting its graduating classes, which were down from 60-70 seniors 40 years ago to 20 seniors in 2011.
“We love our community and we just want to live here,” Reams said. “We want to have jobs for our kids. We want to have nice schools and good parks and great tourism and fun things to do. Everybody wants that. And, certainly, we’re not willing to risk our lives to do it… We don’t view it as more of a risk than driving your car.”
Right now, what stands in the way of the Piñon Ridge Mill is an environmental group based in Telluride called Sheep Mountain Alliance. In June, the group won a lawsuit that revoked the license that a Colorado agency issued to Energy Fuels Inc., based on the agency’s failure to hold formal public hearings. The company has stated that it will continue to pursue the license.
Hilary White, the director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, concedes that occupational safety for miners has improved. But, she doesn’t believe that the uranium industry can contain the vast quantities of radioactive and toxic waste products that a mill produces. The waste can contaminate water supplies, make people sick, and harm wildlife. “It’s impossible to say that you can contain something for lifetimes upon lifetimes,” she said. “Humans just don’t have that capacity.”
Thurston, with INFORM Colorado (the name is an acronym for Information Network for Responsible Mining), also based in Telluride, took me on a tour of the area to see the legacy of the last uranium boom. We saw long out-of-use mines with open, gaping tunnels and piles of waste rock left where they were dumped 40 or 50 years ago. Most of the 1,200 mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt fall into this category, Thurston said—unused but unreclaimed. At these sites, no effort has been made to contain radioactivity or return the land to a state that is safe for other uses.
Uravan, where vividly colored impoundment ponds once lined the very edge of the San Miguel River, is an exception. There, the clean-up cost taxpayers $120 million.
Thurston said that uranium companies should have to clean up existing messes before they’re allowed to move forward on new projects.
“This is an industry that has a record of absolute failure,” she said. “Yet it always comes back and says, Trust us. We’ll do it differently.”
Bringing back a potentially hazardous industry might create jobs in rural communities like Nucla and Naturita, but it could do economic damage to the larger region, according to a study commissioned by Sheep Mountain Alliance, by Power Consulting.
The rural communities, including Nucla and Naturita, that rose and fell with the uranium industry are located in the western ends of three Colorado counties—Mesa, Montrose, and San Miguel—that include the urban centers of Grand Junction, Montrose, and Telluride (once a mining center, now a resort destination). The Power study notes that, as a whole, between 1985 and 2008, while the uranium industry was in decline, these counties saw remarkable economic growth. They added over 66,000 jobs, gained almost 73,000 residents, and saw real income multiply by 2.5 times.
The study attributes this growth to “new sources of economic vitality … associated with the attractiveness of this region as a place to live, work, do business, and raise a family as well as a place to visit or live part-time.”
Among these sources, the study credits the region’s thriving tourism and recreation industry, its draw for retirees and second-home owners, and the emergence of its growing towns and cities as trade hubs. According to the study, a facility that is seen as “noxious,” like a uranium mill, could slow or reverse these trends.
Already, Thurston says, the proposal has stoked anxieties about “radioactive snow” at Telluride.
White says, “It would put Telluride immediately downwind of this radioactive waste facility. What if there was some sort of leak that was on national news? What would happen to our tourist industry?”
White also thinks that communities like Nucla and Naturita should aim for better than a boom-and-bust industry that exposes residents to hazardous materials. She lists potential alternative sources of economic development for the area: retirement communities, agriculture, greenhouses, recreation, tourism, solar energy.
But Reams told me that she finds the way outsiders offer their advice offensive. “We don’t tell them what to do with their ski hill,” she said.
She told me, “We want [uranium] because we understand it. We think we know how to keep it as safe as possible. They’re our children going in those mines. We’re not dumb and we don’t need to be taken care of or told how to do things. We think that this is a good industry for us… It’s part of our history and we think it’s good.”
In Virginia, as in Colorado, residents are weighing the positive and negative economic consequences of uranium mining.
Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), which is seeking to mine the Coles Hill Deposit near Danville, touts impressive figures—including the potential for over 1,000 jobs—from an economic study of its proposal written by Chmura Economics and Analytics on commission for the state.
Both advocates and opponents of uranium mining present voices from the local community to make their economic case. The VUI website includes quotes from residents who welcome the prospect of economic growth, like Fred Soyars of Danville, who says, “The Coles Hill uranium project may be our last call for prosperity. We need good jobs and a new, strong stream of tax revenue.”
A video produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Piedmont Environmental Council, which oppose uranium mining in Virginia, features a farmer concerned that his pastures could be contaminated and an angler who talks about the hit local businesses would take if people stopped coming to the area to fish. In the video, Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Commission asks, “If you were the businessman or businesswoman… would you pick the community that has the potential for uranium mining pollution — or would you pick the one that doesn’t?”
The City of Virginia Beach, downstream from the Coles Hill site, which is both a major city and a popular tourist destination, opposes the project because an accidental release of tailings could poison its water supply.
The Chmura study attempts to gauge potential economic costs and benefits and calculate the net impact of VUI’s mining and milling operation. It finds that the project could result in local and statewide growth that it calls “substantial and much-needed,” but qualifies this finding in a significant way.
Chmura writes: “During its projected 35 years of operations, the Coles Hill site is expected to support more than 1,000 jobs annually (direct, indirect, and induced) and have an annual net positive economic impact of approximately $135 million. This net benefit comes after subtracting for a broad array of potential socioeconomic costs (such as public health and the environment) and negative ‘stigma’ effects on some sectors (such as tourism and agriculture), which under specific circumstances, Chmura judges most likely to be minimal.” (Italics added).
What “specific circumstances”?
Chmura outlines four possible scenarios, and chooses one use to use as the baseline for its calculations. These are the four possibilities:
- The VUI mine and mill cause virtually no environmental damage.
- They cause some environmental damage, but not more than what is allowed by law.
- They cause environmental contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in terms of air, soil, or noise, but not water.
- They cause contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in multiple categories, including water.
Chmura bases its calculations on Scenario #2: contamination from the plant is kept within regulatory limits. If contamination exceeds those limits, and especially if it gets into the water, the economic outlook could be radically different. The study notes, “The risks and rewards are not balanced, and the adverse economic impact under the worst-case scenario is nearly twice as great as the corresponding positive impact in our best-case scenario.”
If either the VUI mill in Virginia or Piñon Ridge Mill in Colorado is built, it will join just one other uranium mill in operation in the United States. The Cotter mill in Canon City, Colorado shut down last year, after contaminating the groundwater for decades and leaving local wells unusable. The Atlas mill in Moab, Utah closed in 1984 and is subject to an ongoing cleanup to stop the leaching of radioactive wastes into the Colorado River. That leaves the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, where minor releases of airborne radioactivity were documented recently.
In Virginia, a climate that is dramatically wetter than that of the American Southwest and prone to intense rainfall, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes adds to the challenges of safely operating a uranium mill and storing hazardous wastes there over the long term.
The debate over uranium in Virginia is often framed as weighing the risks of contamination against the promise of economic growth. But Chmura’s analysis indicates that environmental risk and economic risk go together. The proposed uranium mine and processing plant could prove a major boon for Virginia’s economy—if nothing gets out of control.
Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until 2012, she served as senior writer and editor at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/ .