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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 www.bobbymagill.com and his photography at www.restlesswest.com. 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.