The nuclear Paradox
The nation's first uranium mill in 25 years might be this valley's salvationBy Eric Peterson
(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)
The remote swath of the Paradox Valley in southwestern Colorado earned its name from the fact that the Dolores River cuts across it from ridge to ridge rather than running through it lengthwise.
The valley's name was a big draw for New York transplant Marty Warner, president and executive director of West Montrose Economic and Community Development in the town of Paradox. “Paradox is one of my favorite words,” she explains. “It's always followed me around. The definition I prefer is 'that which cannot be but is.'”
The name is just one of the lures. Natural beauty abounds in the form of plenty of blue sky, red rock, and pinon forests. Then there's the uranium.
The presence of radioactive rock has been common local knowledge for 100 years. It's said that Madame Curie received uranium from the area in the early 1900s, and the Manhattan Project used locally mined uranium in the making of the world's first atomic weapons. The population peaked in the Paradox Valley and vicinity as the uranium industry boomed in the 1950s at around 6,000 people, and today it's about a quarter of that high-water mark. Modern Paradox has little in the way of commercial activity.
“I had moved here with the understanding they would never restart the uranium industry again,” Warner says. “I had a seething hatred of uranium in general because I lived in New York. I put my finger on Uravan on a map once and said, 'I am never going there.'”
But once she got to know the locals, Warner softened her stance. She even ended up working in administrative support during the cleanup of nearby Uravan, the company town turned Superfund site just around the bend.
Now she sees the uranium industry as the valley's only economic hope. “It's truly a boom and bust mineral and right now our area could be the poster child for bust. For 25 years, there has been no industry here. The infrastructure – everything needs to be repaired. The whole town is dilapidated to the bone.”
“This is a resource for this area – it's always been a resource for this area,” she adds. “It caused quite a few people to become millionaires when the mill was 'going and blowing.'”
A Canadian company, Energy Fuels, is looking to build the first new uranium mill in the country in the last quarter-century. The Pinon Ridge Mill has Montrose County's seal of approval and is waiting on the state's, due January 17. A lawsuit against the county filed by Telluride's Sheep Mountain Alliance is another potential stumbling block.
Citing polls that have shown local public opinion to be about 80 percent pro-mill, Warner sees Pinon Ridge as her community's fiscal salvation. “If the new mill starts up, there will be a boom and all the mines will open up again. We lost two generations here. They had to leave to go find work in the mining industry. Hopefully, this will bring some of those people back. Their grandfathers are still here.”
Tourism in the Paradox Valley “has been showing a steady increase. It's a beautiful area and there's lots of outdoor recreation.” But it's still nascent: There is one lodging in the valley, one gas station, and little else.
Thus, Warner sees Pinon Ridge as the only solution, for both the valley and the country. “I can relate to the fear of uranium, but I can also see where I was force-fed bad information. The truth is, it's always been here. It just went to sleep. And it is a clean source of energy. It's probably what's going to save us. I don't see how we're going to meet our energy needs for the next 15 years without it.”
Energy Fuels CEO Stephen Anthony says he is optimistic that the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment will approve the mill and the lawsuit filed against Montrose County (with Energy Fuels as a related party) will end in dismissal. (Hilary White of the Sheep Mountain Alliance begs to differ. “I feel we have a very strong case,” she says.
Slated to open as early as the first half of 2012, the mill would have 85 full-time employees, many of them well-paid and highly skilled, and spur the creation of another 230 mining and transportation jobs in Colorado and Utah. As Energy Fuels currently employs 15 people, “The mill would represent a major expansion for us,” Anthony adds.
Budgeted at $140 million, the Pinon Ridge Mill would process a relative drop in the bucket, producing 800,000 pounds of yellowcake (processed uranium) annually, less than one-half of 1 percent of the annual worldwide market. Energy Fuels would expand the facility based on demand in coming years. “We're focused on this facility. In the long term, we would expand the facility based on demand,” says Anthony. “At its peak, the area had six mills in the 1970s. It's all-market driven. What would increase is the number of mines.”
About Eric Peterson
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News.