Transporting uranium is also of major concern to the San Miguel County Commissioners, who recently approved an expansion to the Sunday Complex’s Conditional Use Permit, but not without some consternation about potential truck traffic and liability issues should there be any accidents or spillage.
But as County Planning Director Mike Rozycki reminded the public and commissioners at the beginning of the meeting, regarding the discussion of “conditional use on federal land, the County Attorney has advised that the review does not involve approving or denying the application, but reviewing and applying reasonable conditions on mining and hauling.”
The San Miguel County Commissioners have expressed their opinions about uranium mining before. Their position in an August 2006 letter on the Department of Energy’s proposal to open up 27,000 acres in San Miguel and nearby counties to uranium mining was markedly chilly. The letter indicated that “the county believes the very activity of mining for uranium is ecologically unwise, unhealthy to humans and unsustainable.” The commissioners’ “first preference” was for the Department of Energy to “withdraw all its uranium tracts into inactive status and hold them in reserve until a solution can be found to the problem of radioactive waste disposal/storage.”
Building Economic Muscle
Towns in the Uravan Mineral Belt have been sleepy since the last uranium boom ended some 25 years ago, but that’s gradually changing. With the upsurge in oil and gas exploration and development in recent years and the current interest in uranium, the landscape, economic and otherwise, could be about to change drastically. As the price of uranium, now $93 per pound, continues to creep up, interest in harvesting the area’s mineral reserves is only likely to increase.
According to Denison Mining Company’s President of Operations Ron Hochstein, the economic benefits from the Sunday Mine are “significant.” Between contractors hauling and doing other work, and the company employees in the West End, Hochstein maintained, “it (uranium mining) will have a huge economic impact.
“As the mines continue to ramp up, we will need more employees, which could benefit communities all the way to Norwood.” Hochstein, who is looking at another potential mine in San Miguel County, said that, along with the Sunday Complex, they could operate several shifts a day, possibly 24 hours a day. “The total employment, county wide, including contractors, could reach 250,” said Hochstein.
The prospects of additional jobs close to home and new sources of tax revenues has communities like Nucla and Naturita eager to see uranium mining come back. They welcome the new boom.
As Nucla Mayor Roxy Allex said, “For areas as economically depressed as these, it’s major.” She acknowledged that “there will be a big influx for this town of 735,” but believes they’re prepared for it. For example, a recent $495,000 grant from the Colorado Division of Local Affairs will enable the town to repair its failing waterlines. “We’re already seeing the benefits,” Allex reasoned. And with their water plant at 10 percent capacity, “built with the future in mind,” Allex is confident the town is ready “for a lot of growth.” Reflecting on Nucla’s energy future, Allex declared, “I’m encouraged; I think things are really looking up.”
Impact on Workers’ Health
However good the future may be looking, past uranium booms also left a trail of damaged lives and decimated land in their wakes. Miners working underground suffered a plethora of lung ailments so damaging that the federal government finally established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in the early 1990s to compensate workers and their families for their suffering.
Much of the evidence that convinced Congress to pass the act came from Grand Junction, where hospitals were seeing a slew of lung cancers, emphysema and other illnesses afflicting uranium miners. One Junction doctor, the legendary Dr. Geno Saccamanno, developed a test that enabled quick and easy diagnosis of mine-related lung disease.
Both industry representatives and radiation health care workers agree that today’s mining operations are safer, provided they operate properly. “The industry didn’t understand radon before,” said Hochstein. “Our ventilation requirements are significantly higher, not just for radon, but for diesel fumes as well. We’re moving more air now.”
Glasier agreed. “Ventilation is better. It sounds like a hurricane. It gets rid of the radon for the safety of the miners.” The equipment, too, is a lot cleaner, he said, with a lot less emissions in the enclosed underground spaces.
Jean Moores, who lives about 10 miles from Gateway, has lived all of her 76 years near the former mines. Moores’ husband, a miner, succumbed to work-related lung cancer. Her brother also worked in the uranium industry and died from lung ailments. However, her approval of uranium mining, with its new ventilation and emissions technologies, remains unshaken. “I see no harm, as long as there is air in the mines,” she said, adding that the diesel smoke was more harmful to workers than the radon.
The environmental legacy of the town of Uravan, site of Union Carbide’s uranium mill, demonstrates how mismanaged boom and bust can leave a place with no viable future. Declared a superfund site by the federal government in 1986, no trace of the once bustling community remains.
People in the area are well aware of the massive cleanup efforts just down the San Miguel River from Naturita, a process that took 15 years and $70 million in federal government money and left nothing to suggest there even was once a town of 800 people there.
Will mining be safer this time around?
“I’m uncertain,” said Teresa Coons, a fourth generation Coloradoan and the senior scientist for the Saccomanno Research Institute in Grand Junction. “The regulations are certainly tighter.” Coons, who directs the scientific research programs associated with St. Mary’s Hospital, also runs a medical screening program for former uranium industry workers, serves on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Grand Junction City Council, and has spent years working with and observing the effects of uranium mining on people and their communities.
She takes a larger perspective, wondering where uranium fits in on an international level. “It will depend on the world market and also on our domestic energy policy,” she explained. With an international demand for uranium driven by China’s burgeoning nuclear power industry and Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy, the demand for uranium is strong and growing.
What especially worries Coons is how our national energy policy will impact local communities. Questions about what we need to support our lifestyle and where the impacts will be felt to supply those needs abound. She believes “any energy source has risks and benefits.”
“I’m less concerned about risk at the worker level because we know how to control it. But will we?” she wondered. “At the community level, we still have mill waste and we have to be concerned about what we do with it. There’s still a policy debate needed – how do we make these decisions, and in whose backyard?”
Coons also believes people are more educated now, having both the information and experience to make good decisions. “But it takes a concerted effort and engagement, not just headlines and sound bites to determine where uranium fits in.”