Denver's Starz Film Festival screened Uranium Drive-In, a documentary by Susan Beraza featured in both Spotlight on Colorado and Environment in Focus categories. With her film crew Beraza visits the small drying-up towns of Naturita and Nucla in Montrose County in Western Colorado. These towns and Uravan, which was demolished as part of a Superfund cleanup in the 1980's, were founded by mining companies who came for the uranium. Mines and mills offered high-paying jobs, and the residents chose to live with the risks of underground mining and exposure to radioactivity. But when Energy Fuels returned in the mid-2000's to open a uranium mine at Pinon Ridge outside Naturita, they were opposed by a coalition of environmental groups led by Sheep Mountain Alliance, headquartered in the town of Telluride 70 miles to the east. Pinon Ridge in the Paradox Valley lies in the watershed of the Dolores River, which flows into the Colorado - leakage of radioactive water would have magnified repercussions downstream.
The name Telluride now conjures ski paradise, film and music festivals, beautiful scenery and beautiful people - but before all that Telluride was a mining town, its groundwater poisoned by cobalt, tellurium and other heavy metals. I wonder how many of the owners of multi-million dollar vacation homes are aware of its history. But to the people of Naturita and Nucla, towns without jobs, Telluride is populated by rich people who care more about Paradox Valley's land than about the people trying to survive on it.
Energy Fuels wooed Naturita and Nucla with the promise of high-paying jobs, offering opaque assurances that the contamination "mistakes of the past" would not be repeated under current regulations. However, in Canon City, where Cotter Corporation's uranium mill has been closed and the mandated cleanup has revealed the extent of groundwater contamination, a resident shakes her head at their short-sightedness. Her own father, one of the founders of the Cotter facility, spent his last painful years working against the opening of further uranium mines, before dying of cancer. In fact, the Cotter facility was in the news again this week, for its largest to-date leak of contaminated water.
Residents of Nucla and Naturita waited out the challenges and petitions, but by 2012 when the permit was finally granted, the bottom had dropped out of the uranium market, and Energy Fuels, laying off workers from another mine, was not going to invest in Pinon Ridge.
Mining and drilling are by nature boom-and-bust: when companies have extracted what they value and made their money, they leave. The people who settle remote areas to work for them are left high and dry, on their own to create an economy if they can - or abandon their homes, if they can't.
Naturita residents have started a website, afteruraniumdrivein.com, to explore ways to revitalize their community with sustainable work. Current ideas include a reservations call center for nearby Telluride, agricultural revival, mining tourism, festivals, a shopping district, and boosting outdoor tourism - hunting and fishing, horseback riding...
They are looking for ideas, and more importantly, funding.
In the end, this is a challenge not just for struggling rural areas, but for us all: are we willing to think past our own wallets, to consider who's supported and abandoned every time we buy something? Right now it's hard to find products made in this country, but that can change, if we're willing to pay more knowing the money goes to our neighbors, not primarily into the pockets of the very corporations that took their jobs overseas.