FRESH FUEL: A proposal to build a uranium mill in Piñon Ridge, CO, the nation's first mill in 25 years, could provide new jobs and economic benefits, but may also cause health and environmental impacts, experts say. Image: WikimediaCommons/Alberto Otero Garc
In Colorado's far western reaches is a valley called Paradox. Unlike most, it is cut crosswise through the middle. The Dolores River runs perpendicular through it, creating a geologic anomaly that is also the valley’s namesake.
Brilliant orange cliffs cradle the valley floor under the white gaze of Utah’s La Sal Mountains. Sagebrush plains and irrigated hay fields are broken only by herds of cows and the tiny hamlets of Bedrock and Paradox. Within the region's perplexing geology run rich veins of uranium, fuel for the nation's incipient nuclear renaissance.
A proposal to build the nation's first uranium mill in 25 years has divided the community there between those who see good jobs and a stable economy and neighbors fearful of uranium’s history of health impacts, environmental harm and unstable prices. Both sides recognize that the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill – fed by ore from up to 41 nearby mines – could transform this quiet corner of Colorado into the fountainhead of the nuclear fuel industry.
“As far as that mill here, boy we need it,” said Mike Moore of the Western Small Miner's Association, based in nearby Naturita. “Not only financially, but the whole area, the country needs it.”
Uranium has been a boom and bust industry in Western Colorado, where communities still struggle in the wake the last bust in the early 1980s. Support is strong locally for the mill, particularly in the towns of Nucla and Naturita, the population center of the county's western end, about 12 miles east of the mill site.
"You just go down Main Street and you can see,” said John Reams, president of the Miners Association and owner of Tomcat Mining Company in Naturita. “We barely have a motel. We don't really have any restaurants. There used to be five or six of them. Our schools are way down. So, we need it.”
The mill could provide up to 85 jobs paying $45,000 to $75,000 per year, according to mill operator Energy Fuels Resources, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Canadian corporation of the same name. A county study showed the mill could increase county housing demand by 31 percent and generate up to 564 additional long-term jobs in the county in sectors like construction, retail, and mining.
But this is not a tidy story, with camps cleanly divided between those who reap benefit and those who see harm. Many in the valley have seen both sides: The lure of a steady paycheck, the devastating effects of ill health and premature death.
Leah Christen's father was a uranium miner. He died at age 70 of emphysema, an illness common among miners exposed to radon gas, especially those who smoked tobacco. Her support for the mill is undeterred.
"Would I follow in my dad's footsteps?" she asked. "Most certainly.... This is the natural resource that God gave us so let's use it.”
While excitement for economic growth is high, cautionary tales abound from the uranium past. The deaths of many sick uranium workers and residents still haunt the area. Studies have found increased deaths among uranium miners and mill workers in the region from lung ailments including cancer even among non-smokers.
The demolished company milling town of Uravan, 16 miles from Naturita, shows this flip side of uranium. Born as a radium mining site in the early 1900s, it became a company town in 1935, when U.S. Vanadium Corp. built a mill and expanded the mine. Its output fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War's nuclear arms race. But few measures were in place to protect workers, residents or the environment from uranium's harm, and the town was evacuated in 1984 due to extensive radioactive contamination. After becoming a federal Superfund clean-up site in 1986, the site was reclaimed in 2008 at a cost of $127 million, paid for Vanadium Corp.'s owner, Union Carbide Corporation. In August 2009, a federal appeals court ruled against past residents of the mill town who sought compensation for their illnesses, siding with Union Carbide.