Not in my backyard?


The New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson gave the NIMBY question some thought in a story and blog post this week profiling the political tug of war between anti-uranium milling NIMBYs in Telluride, Colo., and those who live in Naturita, Nucla and nearby towns around Colorado's Paradox Valley. Many residents in those towns see the proposed uranium mill as an economic boon and not as an environmental threat to the region.

The Piñon Ridge mill, slated to be built in the remote Paradox Valley 12 miles west of Naturita, would be operated by Toronto-based Energy Fuels Resources and be the first uranium mill in North America to be constructed in more than 25 years. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment expects to approve or deny a permit application for the mill by Jan. 17.

In his blog, Johnson asks whether uranium milling and the transportation of the uranium ore are as dangerous as those who don’t want it in their backyard say it is. Proponents claim that what’s dangerous is human error -- the error of mishandling the ore to promote the spread of cancer in mill workers and among nearby residents -- not the ore and the milling themselves if handled carefully. Rules and regulations, they say, will protect people from the radiation.

Human error is dangerous, as anyone who has lived on Colorado’s Western Slope long enough knows. The state and federal government spent much of the 1970s and 1980s remediating homes, schools, churches and other buildings in Grand Junction that had foundations built atop uranium mill tailings used as fill. Time Magazine called the city “Hot Town” in 1971 for its radioactive legacy.  

That legacy continues. For a taste of what uranium companies are up to in Colorado residents’ backyards today, you just need to turn to the newspaper headlines.

The Cotter Corp. is fighting a fine levied against it by Colorado public health officials when a stream flowing below the company’s Schwartzwalder uranium mine near Golden was found to contain uranium levels seven times the level considered safe for drinking water. That stream feeds into the municipal water supplies of the cities of Denver and Arvada.

In northern Colorado, Powertech Uranium Corp. is proposing an in situ leach uranium mine in the plains northeast of Fort Collins. Landowners around the mine site between the towns of Wellington and Nunn worry the leaching process, which stirs up uranium in the process of extracting it from aquifers, will contaminate ground water that feeds domestic water wells. In November, Powertech sued to stop the state from implementing water quality regulations for in situ uranium mines that the company believes are unreasonable. Indeed, Powertech called some of the provisions in the regulations "fatal" to in situ uranium mining in Colorado. 

 So, when a company proposes a new uranium mill, those wary of the industry's trustworthiness have volumes of Colorado history supporting a conclusion that it's reasonable to turn a skeptical eye toward new uranium projects and the regulations created to safeguard people and the environment.

But does rigorous skepticism toward the Piñon Ridge Mill necessarily lead to saying "Not in my backyard"? The answer will become clear if Colorado regulators give the mill a green light in January, when western Colorado's nuclear legacy could be set on a course for a new era in uranium production.

Bobby Magill is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based journalist and photographer focusing on environment, energy and public health issues across the West. Find his work at and his photography at A South Carolina native and former outdoor educator, Bobby moved West a decade ago and has since explored every county in New Mexico and Colorado, where he has reported for newspapers in Grand Junction and Fort Collins. 

Uranium tailings sign image courtesy Flickr user Curtis Perry.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

My backyard
Jan 06, 2011 06:04 AM
A few years ago I learned uranium was near my backyard. Being an environmental nut I was immediately opposed. Don't touch my land! My Wildlife! No way.

As a I sat here signing petition after petition to stop Oil drilling just about anywhere in the US it finally hit me. It being reality.

Yes, Cotter and others screwed up, got busted being sloppy. We can't have that - but it isn't uranium's fault. I hit the books and studied "nuclear". My conclusion about Nuclear? We don't have a choice - we have too many people and we need clean energy yesterday.

China has over 20 nuclear plants planned. The US has one. France has used the technology for recycling uranium waste successfully - the US just sits here pretending like it doesn't exist, its citizens crying like babies out of complete ignorance. Ignorance is simply not knowing the knowledge needed to make a decision - but that doesn't stop us from making OUR decisions!

Chernobyl was built in such a poor way a firecracker could have blown it up.

Three mile islands sister plant (the one smack beside the faulty one) has remained in operation to this date with no problems....

What we DON'T know is what is hurting us more than what we think we do know - thanks to Media Hype that runs our world, along with Corporate manipulation (yes you, Big Oil).

People need the facts, not the hype and fears. It CAN be done safely. It's CLEAN, it's available, and if we don't "get with it" soon? We will be at the mercy of buying all our uranium from foreign companies - sound familiar?

Fremont County - home of the 9th largest natural occurring uranium deposit in the world.

So shall we sit on it and continue to be at the mercy of Big Oil and Arab countries? Use it and curb our oil dependency? Sell it and actually MAKE money from energy for a change? OUR ignorance will make or break a very critical new era facing us NOW.
History does show a good record on safe uranium mining
Jan 06, 2011 03:19 PM
"...when a company proposes a new uranium mill, those wary of the industry's trustworthiness have volumes of Colorado history supporting a conclusion that it's reasonable to turn a skeptical eye toward new uranium projects and the regulations created to safeguard people and the environment."

The operative word is SAFE.
There aren't many instances that can be examined that show the mining companies are willing to be good stewards. In fact, there are many instances where they aren't.

IMHO, bringing scare tactics into this argument does nothing to advance the issue.

Environmental compliance and public safety are not profit centers to these corporations. Working the system and doing the bare minimum to comply are the norm rather than the exception.

Arizona is a good example of this with the consideration of uranium mining in their forefront too:
"Arizona Department of Environmental Quality interim director Henry Darwin admits that they are streamlining the permit process. And that means Denison will not have to monitor the aquifers until inspectors find contamination and they won't have to set aside money for clean-up until a problem occurs."

Until these companies can demonstrate a real willingness to think first, mine second, don't expect many to have faith in anything they promise.