The paradox of uranium mining
Mine workers, environmentalists battle for supremacy on West's energy stage
Telluride — Scott Laws’ father had a saying for what the mines would do to his family and how different they would be.
“My dad used to say that the only effect the uranium mines had on him was that his kids would be born naked,” Laws said.
Sure enough, they were born naked. And they’ve never been sick from growing up in and around the mines that smatter the West, equal parts legacy and tragedy.
The mine nearest to him may expand soon, though environmental groups are protesting.
Laws runs the Lamplight Restaurant in Monticello, Utah, and he needs the business the mines provide; without it, he might have to shutter.
From here, the crow could fly there in an hour, but Monticello’s differences from Telluride – a resort town that cringes at any mention of mining – cannot be spanned. A chasm as wide as the West separates the two; one needs things like uranium mining while activists in another would wipe it from the earth, bandaging the scars it left on the land and the people who’ve worked it.
“They can’t argue the fact that it’s going to be unhealthy for the people who live here,” Laws said. “If we didn’t have that, there’s nothing here.”
The uranium market isn’t a distant boogeyman in Monticello, a blink-quick town on U.S. Highway 491, near the mill in Blanding, Utah. It’s what keeps money in cash registers and pays bills.
Industry is spiking. There’s a copper mine in the area, where starting laborers take in $20 an hour.
“That makes for a very good income,” Laws said. “Kids grow up well on that.” He would know: His father designed part of the uranium mill in Blanding. Mining is a lifeblood for Monticello and towns like it, yet there are opposition groups that think they have just as much right to stop its expansion as those fighting to keep the industry healthy.
“There comes a point that you have to say which is more important,” Laws said. “The birds that live in the trees or the families who live on the ground?”
Expansion moves forward
It’s an industry that’s folded and fluxed during the past 70 years; there were Miss Uranium pageants in towns long since sunk into the ground. Old roads cobweb forgotten corners of the west end of the county and the eastern reaches of Utah.
Spot prices for the element that powers nuclear reactors have fallen off a table during the past year – down from a speculator- and hedge fund-driven $130 a pound to about $40 now – but companies have shown interest in expanding, notably the Denison Mines, a Canada-based company with an office in Denver.
Denison recently was granted an approval from the Bureau of Land Management to expand its Sunday Mines Complex, which pinpricks into a small part of the Big Gypsum Valley. That approval was two years in the making as the BLM undertook an environmental analysis and jumped through the myriad hoops mining permits require.
It may not advance: Sheep Mountain Alliance, a local environmental organization, jumped on a bandwagon petition that challenges the approval and asks for higher-up review, which could stay or derail the project.
Through 26 eloquently penned pages, the filing disputes the BLM’s review, painting it as inadequate on environmental and socioeconomic levels. Among a litany of charges, SMA said the environmental review fails to address water-quality impacts, and the petition calls for a cumulative review of uranium mining’s impacts across the region – something environmentalists say has not been done.
Jamie Sellar-Baker, the Dolores Public Lands Office associate manager, stands by the approval. “We were very cautious; we wanted to make sure we covered all of our bases,” she said.
Sellar-Baker and her office worked on the analysis for more than year. She said the expansion on the surface would be minimal and that it was mainly for worker safety, in the form of ventilation holes. She did not have a direct response to the complaint.
“We believe that we addressed” the concerns of environmentalists, she said. But “that’s why we have this public process because there’s always a potential that we didn’t.”
‘Not the industry of old’
Ron Hochstein, the president of Denison Mines, said the expansion is needed for safety as the mines expand underground.
“It’s just a progression of the mines,” he said. “The surface disturbance area is extremely small. … A lot of these places we don’t even need to put roads.”
Hochstein said the company also will drill test holes, plotting where to mine next.
The ore that comes from the Sunday Mines lies in the Uravan Mineral Belt, which arcs west from here to Utah through Uravan. The ore is relatively high quality, and the vein employs about 80 people, some of whom come from San Miguel County, Hochstein said. And even with prices bucking, “The fundamentals of the uranium market are still strong,” he said.
Of course, Hochstein worries about the long shadow of his industry and fights the negative perceptions where he can.
“It’s not the industry of old,” Hochstein said. “We know so much more, and we can apply so much more technology. We just can’t seem to get rid of that stigma.”
About 20 percent of the power in the U.S. comes from nuclear sources.
The country consumes 55 to 60 million pounds of uranium each year, Hochstein said. It produces only 4 million, even though the U.S. has the world’s fourth-largest uranium reserves.
What’s more, half of the uranium the country uses comes from Russian weapons, marking one of the largest nonproliferation programs undertaken. One in every 10 people taps power from the Cold War when they turn their lights on, Hochstein said.
Walking a fine line
Hilary White is the executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, the group that was part of the petition to stall the expansion. She hopes for projects that could replace the mining industry as we know it.
“We are pushing really hard for a renewable energy initiative,” she said. “We’re doing our best to find the right people to make the industry happen.”
White said the people who came to meetings about uranium mining, who wondered how those who didn’t need the mining industry could threaten to take it away – they were right that non-miners had no right to drain lifeblood from communities. She said it’s elitist to walk into communities and say: “No, you can’t have this.”
“I’m not going to go to these communities and tell you ‘no mines,”‘ White said. “I’ll fight it this way, in the courts.”
“Let’s give them an alternative,” she said. “It’s a really hard line to walk. I’m just frustrated every day.”
Past and future collide
The sky melts into a lavender dusk and the Dolores River roams, a silver thread, stitching patches of green together.
There is noise but not much. The Big Gypsum Valley pockets nearly every sound.
In the distance, lights crack the night, what could be some of the last flickers of the Manhattan Project, which the United States forged to create nuclear weapons in the 1940s. That program ended in 1962 after more than 1 million pounds of uranium and 6.8 million pounds of vanadium – a byproduct in mining that’s used to harden steel – netted $6 million in royalties for the government. A second leasing program, from 1974 to 1994, netted $53 million in royalties.
Now, the uranium powers laptops and lamps, but the perceptions of uranium mining haven’t wavered much outside those who mine for it; it still sports the black eyes and busted lips of a past that’s radioactive from mushroom clouds, Superfund sites and cancer-stricken miners.
But some Utahns and Coloradans see uranium as the past and the future.
“When that money’s not here in circulation, people aren’t getting out and spending money because they don’t have jobs,” said Laws, the Monticello restaurant owner. “I do understand what it does to the environment, but I also understand that we’ve got to have jobs.”
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