Will the zombie mines left over from the last rush come back to life?
By Jonathan Thompson
It’s one of those days when the clouds pile up in the azure blue, their shadows gliding across the sandstone and sage. The Uravan Mineral Belt—named for vanadium and uranium contained within its sedimentary formations—roughly follows the lower Dolores River on the “West End” of Colorado’s San Miguel and Montrose Counties. Both the belt and the river slice perpendicularly across the Paradox Valley, giving it its name. A place of beauty but also one with a history of human brutality against the landscape, the Paradox Valley lives up to its name in more ways than one.
The belt was the center of the radium boom from the early 1900s into the 1920s and targeted for uranium during the Cold War. Vanadium was mined here in between. The mills and mines had mostly closed down by the late 1980s, but the industry never quite died. Instead, it entered a zombified state of dormancy.
I’m here with Jennifer Thurston, of the mining watchdog group INFORM, and the Colorado Wildlands Project’s Soren Jespersen to take a look at myriad wounds inflicted by the mining industry, most still gaping and oozing with uncovered waste rock, rusty equipment, and other detritus decades after they were last active. But this is more than a journey into the past; it’s also a look at what might happen again in the not-so-distant future. Increasing uranium prices and a renewed interest in low-carbon nuclear power appears to be rousing the uranium mining industry. The West End could very well be uranium country once more. “Here we go again,” Jespersen says, as we examine the remains of an open pit mine that never actually produced any ore. “Are we going to stumble blindly down the same path?”
The uranium industry was born back in 1898, long before anyone had thought of nuclear power or nuclear bombs, when Marie Curie discovered radium in unrefined pitchblende. Radium is a radioactive “daughter” of uranium that was once seen as a sort of miracle substance, so much so that just one gram of the stuff could fetch upwards of $100,000.
Paint radium on watch numbers or even clothing, and they’d glow in the dark. It purportedly could cure cancer and impotence and give those who used it an “all-around healthy glow,” as one advertisement put it. During the early 1900s, it was added to medicines, cosmetics, and sometimes even food. The Denver-based Radio-Active Chemical Company added radium to fertilizers. The Nutex Company made radium condoms. Makers of the Radiendocrinator instructed men to wear “the adapter like any ‘athletic strap.’ This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed.”
Shortly after Curie’s discovery, she received a sample of uranium ore from western Colorado. Curie found that it, too, contained radium, and she named the ore carnotite. A boom erupted in western San Miguel County. Hundreds of mines were dug into mesas and extraction plants built along the rivers to get at the high-dollar miracle substance. The rush faded in the 1920s, but was re-sparked a couple decades later as the federal government sought fissionable material for the bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As the Cold War heated up, the federal government catalyzed a public lands uranium rush with a cornucopia of subsidies, including bonuses of up to $35,000 for initial uranium ore production and grubstake loans to finance mining operations. Most significantly, the government agreed to be the exclusive purchaser of ore and yellowcake, and guaranteed a price to be paid for it, thus eliminating financial risk from what otherwise would have been a high-risk, high-return proposition.
A frenzied rush commenced and soon infused popular culture. A 1949 cover story in Popular Mechanics instructed readers on how to build their own Geiger counters. The New Yorker ran pieces on East Coast prospectors hoping to make millions and even Ebony magazine covered the rush. A board game called Uranium Rush included a “Geiger counter” that “lights and buzzes your way to fun and fortune.” Prospectors from across the demographic spectrum descended on the sparsely populated region, Geiger counters in hand, combing public lands in search of the next bonanza.
Most didn’t. Find the next bonanza, that is. In 1956 the Moab Times-Independent noted that the rush of greenhorn prospectors hoping to make overnight millions was already over, leaving the once-quiet Mormon town with a pile of debt and prayers that the nascent tourism industry could keep it afloat.
But the industry continued to churn away, albeit in a less frenzied state, providing jobs, and fueling the economies of uranium country communities like Moab, Naturita, and Gateway. It also ravaged the high-desert landscape and poisoned the workers, many of whom were Navajo. Radioactive waste rock piled up outside of mine portals, mills, and company towns along willow-lined river banks, and streams ran yellow-grey with toxic mill tailings, killing off all aquatic life in long stretches of the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers.
In the late 1970s, Americans began to sour on nuclear bombs and power. In a star-studded 1979 No Nukes concert in Madison Square Garden, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, John Hall, and Bonnie Raitt implored the world to “take all your atomic poison power away.” That same year one of the reactors at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown, and on the Navajo Nation a uranium mill tailings dam was breached, sending more than 1,000 tons of tailings and 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid into the Puerco River, affecting livestock and contaminating the drinking-water wells of countless people downstream.
And when the Cold War ended, it not only reduced demand for uranium for weapons, but also opened up supplies from big mines in Russia and Kazakhstan, which squeezed more pricey U.S. uranium out of the market.
The decline of the industry hit the West End hard. More than 500 people lived in the company mill town of Uravan in the 1950s. In the 1980s the town was so contaminated that it was razed—houses, hospital, swimming pool—and entombed along with toxic tailings on a nearby mesa. The West End’s population fell by about 60 percent and the estimated mining payroll plummeted from $80 million in 1979 to $7 million in 2000.
While the non-uranium-mining towns nearby such as Telluride and Montrose have flourished since mining’s demise, having embraced recreation, tourism, and the amenities economy, West End communities like Nucla, Naturita, and Gateway have been slower to recover. That has left some locals yearning to bring the nuclear zombie—radioactive waste-oozing sores and all—back to life.
And they just might get their wish. As the effects of climate change become more and more apparent, and the sense of urgency around the need to decarbonize the power sector intensifies, climate hawks are giving nuclear power a new look. The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo, California, for example, is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but the state’s Democratic governor is pushing to keep it open to keep the state’s strained power grid from collapsing. Meanwhile, a Bill Gates-backed firm called TerraPower is working to build an advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Oregon startup NuScale is looking to install a battery of small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory and sell power to small, Western utilities.
Any of these initiatives, on their own, can’t revive the U.S. uranium industry. But this mild resurgence in nuclear power, paired with the fallout (only figurative, we hope) of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has caused the price of uranium to double over the last couple of years. If that trend continues—and if the federal government pitches in subsidies for the industry—it might be enough to make U.S. uranium mining economically feasible.
And that has sparked new interest in the Uravan Mineral Belt. In spring of 2022 Energy Fuels announced the resumption of operations at its mothballed Whirlwind Mine, which straddles the Utah-Colorado line on the northeastern slopes of the La Sal Mountains outside of Gateway. Western Uranium and Vanadium has inched toward reviving its Sunday Mine Complex in the Big Gypsum Valley. And just over the state line, on public lands abutting Bears Ears National Monument, uranium interests have staked nearly 800 claims since October 2021.
Thurston and Jespersen are both acutely aware of what may be coming. And they are each working, in their own way, to prevent a repeat of the destruction of the past.
“Mining has to be part of this energy solution,” Thurston acknowledged. But the industry is still largely regulated by rules created in the late 1800s, which essentially handed over public lands to prospectors to encourage colonization of the West. Before the industry ramps up again, the regulations need to be strengthened and existing rules actually enforced, she said.
She monitors dozens of mines and was instrumental in the fight to block a proposal to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley several years ago. She and her organization have successfully dragged Colorado regulators to court for allowing mining companies to use a loophole to delay cleanup of idled mines indefinitely. And she’s closely watching the development of a new method of processing uranium ore, one that could be helpful, harmful, or both.
Jespersen long worked for the Wilderness Society, but over the last few years he saw it and other national environmental groups shifting their attention away from on-the-ground protection and focusing more globally, on climate change. The Colorado Wildlands Project was formed to fill that on-the-ground hole. Their mission is to permanently protect the last Bureau of Land Management wild lands in the state. One of those is the Lower Dolores River watershed. “We all know we’re in a crisis now,” Jespersen said, “and we’re losing places all the time. We want to start thinking bigger and bolder.”
That includes advocating for more Wilderness Areas, National Conservation Areas and even national monuments to ward off new mining claims and oil and gas leases, another potential threat. “We’re trying to think of the watershed as a whole.”
Both Jespersen and Thurston are also thinking about the West End community as a whole, recognizing that filling the economic void with more sustainable, less damaging industries can help their cause. And at the same time, environmental protection can foster economic development. “I’d never say land protection is the cure-all for a place; but it’s part of it,” said Jespersen.
Locals have been working to establish trail systems in the area for hikers and mountain bikers as well as promoting other recreational pursuits. Others have experimented with various crops in the irrigated parts of the West End, and inns and “glamping” businesses have sprouted in the area. There is also enormous potential in yet another industry: Restoring and healing the broken landscape by using federal and state funds to clean up the mess left by previous waves of uranium mining. In the meantime, Jespersen and Thurston will both continue to fight for a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable West End.