by Jacob Ripple-Carpenter
On the Eastern Slope of Colorado, mining is just a quaint piece of Old West history. No rocks or minerals roll out of mining towns like Central City and Black Hawk anymore. Now, these places cater to weekend tourists pulling on the handles of flashing hypnotic machines, chasing a dollar down a craps table or sipping on a margarita. Watching the gamers waste a day has replaced a migrant community of prospectors and drifters chasing gold up and down rivers and creeks, all their worldly possessions packed onto a dusty worn mule, as they plodded after the dream of wealth from mountain top to valley floors, from one boom town to the next.
On the Western Slope, though, resource extraction is still king, and with a new infusion of federal cash, another generation of mining has the potential to affect every Coloradoan over the next few years.
Mine towns constantly cycle through boom and bust, flooding counties with thousands of workers in search of coal, uranium, natural gas and oil, then vanishing overnight leaving empty suburbs and housing developments behind as workers and companies chase ever greener pastures.
The flashpoint for a new boom cycle in uranium mining started in January, as President Obama called out for “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” Following his speech, the White House outlined a program in the 2011 budget with $55 billion in loan guarantees to build new plants across the country. In Colorado, the result has been very partisan battle lines being drawn, and citizens from across the state pouring into the Western Slope region in a fight over the past, present and future of Colorado.
With the desperation for jobs on the Western Slope reaching a fevered pitch, pro-mining voices are now vying against the health concerns of residents and activists. However, unlike past fights over the issue, environmentalism and the tourism industry are now standing toe to toe against the uranium and vanadium economy.
Old West, New Money
Throughout the western part of the state, vacant ghost towns and decrepit mine shafts litter the landscape. In the San Juan Mountains, hard minerals from mining pollute the waterways leading to advisories against eating more than two fish a year from crystal clear streams running through seemingly untouched wilderness. This section of the state is littered with canyons and epic red bluffs pulled from the set of a John Wayne movie. It has a higher deer population than year round residents.
And it is here, in Paradox Valley at the border between Colorado and Utah, that Energy Fuels, an energy corporation specializing in uranium extraction and milling, has proposed to build a new mill. Just over a dusty red rock, piñon and sage brush covered ridge line, the mill would process the uranium needed to fuel a whole new generation of nuclear power plants across the U.S. and world.
Once uranium is extracted from the earth, a mill separates the useful ore from the rock that surrounds it, and sends the product to market for processing. The Energy Fuels site could create as many as 1,500 jobs in related fields, but the history of toxic pollution in the area has many worried about the health and environmental impact of a potential mill.
It’s such a hot issue that meetings about the proposed mill, normally taking place in local gyms or city buildings with ample elbow room, had to be relocated to the county seat of Montrose.
Those opposed to uranium production and development point to the long, bleak history of uranium mining in Western Colorado. Unclaimed and un-cleaned mill tailings still pollute the countryside. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) estimates that one million cubic yards of toxic mill tailings still litter the communities of Durango, Grand Junction, Gunnison, Maybell, Naturita, Rifle, Palisade and Fruita.
On the other hand, those advocating for mining point to the economy, not the environment, as the platform on which Colorado needs to stake and build its future. At recent meetings in Montrose, both sides made their point.
Uranium vs. Tourism
Jobs, the rallying cry for more mining, drilling and manufacturing echoes from the West Coast to the East, and then reverberates up the canyons and across the public meetings of Montrose County. A large number of the people that turned out for a local hearing were all about the jobs, and George Glasier, the retired founder and CEO of Energy Fuels and now their Public Relations face , is always quick to point out the economic benefits that his proposed mill can bring to the Western Slope. “From mining to milling we are expecting to add 300 to 400 jobs with up to 1,500 hundred support jobs throughout the region,” Glasier said.
Glenn Williams, an employee of Cotter Corporation, a company that has mined and milled uranium in Colorado for more than 50 years, quickly backed up this position in his address to the CDPHE board holding court over the new mill proposal. “I’m a firm believer the responsible development of our natural resources is something we need to get back to,” Williams said, “Recreation is fine. It’s something you do when you got extra money, these days I don’t see a lot of that around.”
If Energy Fuels builds a mill, Cotter Corporation would be one of the mining companies providing much of the uranium to be milled.
On the other side of the piñon dotted ridge where Energy Fuels wants to build its new mill, though, is a signpost about mining jobs—the site of a ghost town barely remembered outside of the region. Locally, it provides a contrast from the newly proposed mill and strikes at the heart of concerns about new uranium mining and processing.
Instead of finding the iconic, western ghost-town image, with precariously leaning saloons and hitching posts buried beneath sagebrush, this town is simply gone. All that remains of it is a flattened field next to a creek with an abandoned uranium mine hanging above it on a hillside, like a tombstone marking an infamous, forgotten grave, a grave surrounded by barbed wire and marked with the universally known symbol for danger—the yellow and black trefoil that indicates the proximity of radioactive materials.
This town was called Uravan and its existence was relatively short, as is the nature of most mining towns. Its legacy or half-life, however, touches the present and stretches into the future.
Established in 1936 by the U.S. Vanadium Corporation, which was quickly consumed by Union Carbide, the town’s name arose from combining the first part of the words uranium and vanadium.
During World War II, Uravan became part of the Manhattan Project and half of the uranium used in the first atomic bombs came from its mines. At the height of its boom, Uravan was home to roughly 800 people and is fondly remembered by some residents as a truly family-focused town. These days Uravan is just one of several superfund sites related to resource extraction around the state.
Twelve miles to the west of Naturita, a small town similar in demographics to Uravan with a population of 655 people in 2008, sits the proposed site of the Piñon Ridge Mill. A town that once was a suburb or neighbor to Uravan now may reflect what Uravan once was. Naturita is desperate to keep its population from dwindling away as kids move to larger, more exciting places with better economic options for their futures. For residents, the hope of jobs and a future hinges on the success of Cotter Corporation and Energy Fuels to provide employment and purpose.
And for its part, the future existence of Cotter Corporation may rely exclusively upon the ability of Energy Fuels to build its mill. Within a two-mile radius of the proposed mill site, Cotter has permits for five mines, including an open pit uranium mine. They have estimated that they could produce 500 tons of ore a day. The next closest mill is the White Mesa in Blanding, Utah, a precarious 80-mile drive through curvy mountain roads for truckers transporting one of nature’s most dangerous ores.
Besides men who currently work in the industry, a large part of the supporters in the region are old hands from the uranium industry’s last boom days in the. From 1948 to 1978 the Uravan mineral belt produced an astounding 330 million pounds of vanadium and 63 million pounds of uranium from 1,200 mines.
William Snyder, a retired Union Carbide worker, seemed almost shaking with anger at the last public hearing that anybody would dare question the need for a new mill.
“We have to have a steady reserve (of uranium) to react to peak demand for a modern industrialized society,” he said, “Most of us should know this, but unfortunately we get caught up in this green power, which cannot and will not meet much of future requirements. We need this fuel,” Snyder stated.
Bill Thompson, a former geologist for Union Carbide in Uravan and the surrounding area, went further and said that in uranium, “we have a pretty green metal here.” He was referring to new ‘mini-reactors’ whose purpose is to power individual towns, and experimental uranium batteries that some are gambling upon to replace lithium batteries someday.
Economic arguments can go both ways, especially on the Western Slope where mining operators from the first gold baron to the last uranium magnate have claimed that their mine or mill is the ticket to a bright, job-filled future for a western landscape perennially dotted with cattle and sheep. They have always proclaimed to bring lasting economic progress to replace the worn and tired family industries tied to agriculture.
But to some, the story looks the same after a couple of years or even decades. Towns are torn down and cattle are herded along highways that once rumbled with semi-trailers hauling ore, while taxpayers foot the bill for newly designated superfund sites.
That is a part of the debate that Karen Sjoberg, director of Grand Valley Peace and Justice, brought up in a recent interview. “Economically, we are in favor of sustainable jobs that provide families with long-term means of support,” she said, “[But] uranium mining and milling jobs are dependent on market value.”
This is an important consideration in the Piñon Ridge battle for a couple of reasons. One, the price of uranium is dependant on the world market,and there is higher grade ore in Canada and Australia. Currently the price of uranium is $40 per share. That’s about half its value from three years ago. Without a high price for uranium, there is a limited market for a product from Colorado.
Two, since Energy Fuels started the application process, they pointed out that they have spent $10 million in their attempt to bring jobs to western Montrose County. That’s a large chunk of money by most people’s standards, yet in comparison to the $40 million that John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel, pumped into the unique Gateway Canyons Resort just down the road from Uravan and the Piñon Ridge Mill Site, it’s not enough to pack a truly powerful punch.
According to a report from the Denver Office of Economic Development and International Trade, tourism is Colorado’s second greatest generator of income. It employed 144,300 people, who earned nearly $4.1 billion in 2008 from visitors who hit the slopes, hiked the trails or rafted the rivers. In 2008 direct travel spending in the state of Colorado totaled $15.3 billion, which generated $760 million in local and state taxes as well as $913 million for the federal government.
From the tourism industry’s perspective, serious money and jobs could possibly be in danger from the stigma associated with uranium mining. Based on the Environmental Protection Agencies threshold, the typical levels of exposure in Colorado aren’t high enough to cause health problems, but for the tourism industry, it’s not a question of actual impact, it’s a question of stigma and the general lack of knowledge about safe radiation levels. The question is: How would people feel about Colorado’s great outdoors as they skied and partied in Telluride knowing the slopes were in the direct, wind-driven path of radioactive particles kicked up by the dust of a uranium mill only 50 miles away?
Environment and Health
Western Colorado is home to widespread pollution from mining. Toxic mill tailings have been dispersed throughout communities as construction companies across the Western Slope used millions of tons of contaminated ore in every type of construction process imaginable.
Reflecting on this history after the latest meeting on the development of the Piñon Ridge Mill, Karen Sjoberg said, “We have lost our innocence when it comes to trusting that government or industry officials will have people’s safety and health as a priority. We live in a region that suffers from a legacy of medical, environmental and economic disaster due to the effects of past uranium boom and bust cycles.”
A 1971 Time magazine article, “Hot Town,” lists around 2,000 properties that contained mill tailings in their construction. The sandy quality of processed mill tailings made them a perfect texture for mixing with cement, stucco, bricks and even gardens and yards. Included in the article was Pomona Elementary School, which before it was cleaned up by the Uranium Mill Tailings Management Plan (UMTR), was so toxic that during the summers radiation levels rose up to 18 times higher than the 1971 safety guidelines established by the U.S. Surgeon General.
In reality, the Grand Junction office of the CDPHE stated that there were approximately, “4,700 properties in Mesa County that had been cleaned up.” They added that “this number does not include properties where owners may have refused clean-up or even not allowed us to inspect their properties.” When the UMTR plan was completed in the summer of 1998, over 15 million cubic yards of radioactive material had been recovered from foundations, schoolyards and even sidewalks around the western side of the state.
For Janet Johnson, a local Grand Junction anti-uranium activist, this history is why she fights so hard today. With her aide speaking at uranium hearings before the Colorado House Transportation and Energy Committee, Johnson and her coalition members, including Environment Colorado, helped pass House Bill 1348 or the “Uranium Processing Accountability Act.” While the bill still has to be passed in the Senate, Johnson and Matthew Garrington from Environment Colorado were optimistic about the bill’s passage in the House, especially due to its astounding 62-2 win.
Garrington said there were two reasons behind his support of the bill, “One, Cotter [Corp.] was planning on completely re-opening their uranium mill in Canon City in 2014, and there was no requirement for cleaning up their former mess before resuming operations.” Cotter Corp. is a subsidiary of General Atomics and specializes in the mining and milling of uranium. They currently control 15 mines in southwest Colorado, and have run operations in Canon City since 1958. “Two, uranium companies need to clean up first,” Garrington says. “Taxpayers have footed the bill for every mass clean-up in the state and uranium companies should take responsibility for their actions.”
In 1988 the Cotter Corp. mill in Canon City became an official Environmental Protection Agency superfund site due to contamination from tailing ponds seeping into the ground water. Since then the Cotter Corp. mill has gone through a constant cycle of opening and closing as prices of uranium spiked and dropped. The most troubling fact of the mill is the nearly constant stream of violations and spills leaking out of the facility. As recently as 2008, the U.S. District Court for Colorado found the company guilty in the poisoning deaths of migratory birds at their mill site. An estimated 4,500 gallons of an organic solvent leaked into a pond, killing around 40 ducks and geese.
In cleaning up the mess from the last uranium boom, the federal government has spent nearly $1 billion, scooping mill tailings out of kid’s swimming holes, from underneath high school gyms and other public areas.
Garrington went on to explain that the bill was not solely targeted at Cotter Corp., but that, “the standard for the Cotter Mill operation wasn’t positive, and that with the new Piñon Ridge Mill proposal on the table we do not want the new mill plagued by the same problems as the Cotter Mill.”
The problems Garrington referred to in Canon City were anything but small. In 10 years the Cotter Mill had collected an astounding 99 violations, which the vice president of milling for Cotter Corp., John Hamrick, admitted to in the hearing over the bill. “Cotter has a substantial history of violations and I’m not here to defend that record,” Hamrick said. He went on to espouse how House Bill 1348 was a “poison pill for uranium mills.”
However, George Glasier disagrees. “The Cotter mill has had a lot of problems, problems from a time in Colorado history that we [Energy Fuels] plan to put behind us. Our mill will operate underneath the toughest standards ever and our site is a new site. There are no tailings contaminating our planned location.” He went on to explain how this bill shouldn’t put anyone out of business and said, “Cotter can comply, it’ll just cost money.”
Money. That is always the basis of resource extraction in the Western Slope—short-term gains in jobs at the expense of future generations’ out door activities and health. Years after the UMTRA clean-up, Johnson still sees a “company town mentality” in Grand Junction and the surrounding area. She even spoke freely about her amazement at how local Grand Junction Realtors had fought so viciously to block any laws pertaining to the disclosure of mill tailing clean-up for properties across the state. “I mean they are required to disclose the possible presence of lead based paints, why not uranium?” she asked.
To this day the Grand Junction Area Realtor Association is still holding true to their company’s town loyalties. At the last public hearing over the Piñon Ridge Mill, Lois Dunn the President of the Grand Junction Board of Realtors traveled from Mesa County to Montrose County to represent 650 members of the Grand Junction Area Realtor Association and voice their support for the mill, “We also need the jobs. We are at 10 percent (unemployment) in Mesa County.”
At its peak Uravan was a town of 800 people and its death cost $127 million. As Janet Johnson explained her position on the Piñon Ridge Mill to a packed county and state hearing on the matter, Uravan’s history on the Western Slope seemed as enduring as the cedar-tinged breeze on the hills outside, “This mill is different and even the processing is different, but the elemental properties (of uranium) are not different. This is always a boom and bust proposition and the government always owns it and the tax payers will pay for it into perpetuity.”