I drink water straight from the tap. Generally, if someone tells me something is safe, I accept that it probably is. So I'd love to be relaxed about the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill just outside of Naturita, Colo., but I can't. The mill, whose permit was recently approved by the state's health department, is 50 air miles from Telluride, the place I call home.
Residents of the depressed southwest part of the state are excited about the 85 new jobs the mill will provide. What's seldom mentioned is the possibility of pollution and the risk of cancer or harm to residents' reproductive health. Don't worry, everyone is assured: This time around, uranium milling will be safe.
But western Colorado has never had a mine or a mill that didn't leave contaminants around for years to come.
Those who wish to dismiss Telluride as a playground for the rich -- go ahead. I did the same when I moved here almost 10 years ago. I was young, and Telluride was a diverting place to live. Now, my relationship with this valley -- a place where some 2,000 people live -- has become close: This is my home. It still seems surreal sometimes, with so many second homes empty much of the year and an emphasis on recreation so intense that the place empties out whenever a heavy snowfall coats the ski slopes.
But I've had my two daughters here, and I have neighbors who bring us cakes and help me take down the laundry drying in the backyard. I'm part of a community here -- one that will be threatened if the Piñon Mill in Paradox Valley is developed. Winds from that area blow here in the spring, and recent studies show that pollutants from coal-fired power plants over 200 miles away are deposited by them in our snowpack and streams. With the proposed mill only 50 air miles from Telluride, we will breathe in and drink its heavy metals, which include arsenic, selenium, mercury and cadmium. The mill will also expose us to the radioactive elements uranium, thorium and radon.
Many proponents of uranium mining point to new techniques that the mill will use to prevent air and groundwater pollution. Yet no containment system has ever been found to be 100 percent effective. Many of the recently restarted mines with supposedly "perfect" containment systems in Colorado have already racked up scores of violations. According to Telluride Watch, a local newspaper, the state's last uranium mine, in Uravan in western Colorado, was only recently cleaned up after 20 years of work. It cost the public $120 million to remove the mine's 13 million cubic yards of contaminants and treat 380 million gallons of liquid.
As the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico proves, we'd be fools to trust industries to look out for our welfare. Preliminary results from a study based at the University of New Mexico suggest that residents who live near mines and uranium tailings are at increased risk of kidney disease, hypertension, diabetes and autoimmune disease. Other studies reveal that laboratory animals that drink water laced with uranium have offspring with higher rates of birth defects, such as cleft palates. A recent study from Northern Arizona University also shows that uranium behaves like estrogen in the bodies of lab animals, raising additional concerns about reproductive risks.
Those who favor the mill shrug off the health risks, but let's not forget: In 2008, 6,020 uranium miners collected $601 million from the federal government for health problems, including lung cancer and silicosis.
There's no doubt that the residents of Paradox Valley need jobs, but is a uranium mill the best way to address that need? The truth is that the boom-and-bust cycles of uranium mining create unsustainable economies in the West. While a mill operates, there are jobs. When a mill shuts down, as it inevitably does after a few years, the region is left with nothing. Yet pollution from the mill will damage southwest Colorado's tourism, agriculture and recreation industries -- the region's major sources of income -- for years to come.
Instead of returning to a risky and problematic technology from the past, let's focus on solar, biofuels and wind. In my opinion, they all have to be better for the environment and for public health than nuclear energy. We can mine uranium and we can mill it, but this country has never figured out how to store it safely. And always, the public has to pay for the damage that is done.
Emily Shoff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a teacher in Telluride, Colorado.