Dust to dust

by Susan J. Tweit

Name Uravan, for its uranium and vanadium

Age About 70 years
Size 680 acres
Claim to fame Produced the majority of the radioactive uranium for the development of the atomic bomb

Just around a bend on Highway 141 in the stark sandstone landscape of western Colorado, the winding San Miguel River canyon suddenly opens. Here, on a dusty flat near the Utah border, the map says there's a town called Uravan. But all that remains of its clanking mills, stores and neat rows of houses are acres of freshly bladed reddish dirt and two metal buildings surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. High above, along a mesa edge that frames blue sky, junipers cling to sheer cliffs and piles of ochre rock spill from the silent mouths of abandoned mines.

This bleak place has more than once played a pivotal role in history.

Prospectors first swarmed the mesas above the San Miguel in the early 1900s, after Marie Curie isolated radium in a Sorbonne laboratory half a world away. Medical demand for the rare radioactive element pushed prices as high as hundreds of dollars an ounce, making the strange yellowish-green carnotite found in the canyon's rock layers suddenly valuable for its radium.

In 1912, Standard Chemical Co. built the Joe Jr. Mill here to process the radioactive ore. The mill produced much of the world's radium -- until higher-grade ores were discovered in the Congo and it closed in 1921. Seven years later, the U.S. Vanadium Corp. bought it and began re-processing tailings for vanadium -- used to strengthen steel -- to supply a nationwide building boom. The company town of Uravan sprang up next to the mill.

Cliff Hiett was born here in the interval between bust and boom. As Hiett grew, so did the town, swelling to 700 residents. There was a school and a swimming pool, houses shaded by spindly elms, a fire station, recreation hall, stores and post office. When World War II came along, Hiett joined the Army to see the world. As former townsfolk tell the story, Hiett served in the Pacific. Then the Army recruited him for its Manhattan Project and posted him to a location so hush-hush that he made the last part of the trip blindfolded -- only to find himself back home in tiny Uravan.

U.S. Vanadium, which held a secret contract with the War Department, had been using the mill to concentrate yet another component of carnotite: uranium. Processing ore from area mines, the company produced 75 percent of the uranium used in the first generation of atomic bombs.

After World War II, federal support for Cold War-era uranium exploration triggered another rush to the mesas around Uravan. Many miners lived in tents and worked underground, breathing radioactive dust. "The jobs were good," says local historian Marie Templeton, who lived in Uravan with her husband, a miner, between 1949 and 1952. "But I don't think there's a miner around here who didn't get lung cancer."

The town's fortunes rose and fell with the price of uranium. Then came the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Uravan's sprawling mill complex, then owned by Union Carbide, shut down in 1984, leaving tailings piles dispersing radioactive dust on the wind and unlined sludge ponds leaking radioactive discharge.

Uravan metamorphosed from mill town to Superfund site. Over the next two decades, earthmovers hauled more than 13 million cubic yards of tailings to a nearby mesa top for burial, along with mill buildings and much of the town itself. Even Highway 141, built on contaminated fill, had to be reconstructed.

Uravan may have been radioactive, but it was home. Former residents keep its memory alive by gathering in Grand Junction, 90 miles away, for annual reunions. Templeton recalls how locals fought to preserve the town's two best-loved structures, the Joe Jr. Boarding House, a remnant of the radium boom, and the Recreation Hall, a Civilian Conservation Corps building relocated to Uravan after the Depression, possibly from Colorado National Monument. But cleanup contractors deemed the structures too fragile to re-locate. "It was heartbreaking," she says. "They just burned them down."

In the fall of 2008, just as the Superfund cleanup was ending, the fight to keep the community alive took another blow: The economy crashed, killing a speculative uranium boom that had mining companies buying up dormant claims and former residents hoping for a revival. After all, those mining jobs, even though deadly, paid well. But best of all, they kept the neighbors from moving away.

© High Country News