Former uranium town wants its waste back

Town folk say radioactive waste will boost business

  • Map of western Colorado

    Diane Sylvain
  • Uranium mill above Uravan, Colorado, in 1983

    Betsy Marston photo

NUCLA, Colo. - It's a busy spring day at the Co-op here as farmers and ranchers stop in for 50-pound bags of pig feed and parts to fix irrigation lines. The talk is about weather, cows and radioactive waste.

Doug Garner, a local farmer, says he supports a proposal to bring low-level radioactive waste from Denver to a storage site just 15 miles down the road. "We need something in this area that brings in some business," says Garner.

The waste he is referring to is 100,000 tons of uranium tailings mixed in concrete from a former processing plant owned by S.W. Shattuck Chemical Co. ear a Denver neighborhood. It's now a Superfund site, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which says the low-level radioactive waste could contaminate soil and groundwater, wants the six acres of concrete broken up and hauled away.

If Garner and others from Nucla and the neighboring town of Naturita have their way, the waste will come to permanent rest in the former company town of Uravan.

Pining for waste

Once a mining and milling town in a narrow and remote canyon carved by the San Miguel River, Uravan was built by Union Carbide in the 1930s to house its uranium workers; at one time, as many as 1,000 people lived along the river. Then, 20 years ago, the uranium market went bust, and Uravan was declared a Superfund site. Nearly 100 homes were either torn down or moved elsewhere, tailings piles were bulldozed back from the river's edge and the dirt under the town was scraped away and hauled to the sandstone bluffs above the river. The office of Umetco, the company in charge of the cleanup and a subsidiary of Union Carbide, is one of only three buildings left in Uravan.

Sherry Craig, a cafe owner in nearby Nucla, pop. 750, says the local economy has been dismal since the mine closed. She views Umetco's bid to store the waste in Uravan as a blessing that could boost business. "I'm not sure how busy it will get, but every little bit of anything helps."

Umetco officials say the project would create only 10 temporary jobs, and no one knows how much business the waste would bring to the struggling communities. But Nucla's mayor, Mary Helen deKoevend, says she doesn't have any hard numbers. "If the project lasts six months, we'll be happy, and if it lasts three weeks we'll be happy." She also says that if it brings more opportunities for waste storage, "that would be great."

Jess Fulbright, who will soon take his elected position on the Nucla Board of Trustees, says it seems logical to bring the waste back to where it came from. Says Fulbright, "We mined it, we milled it, we shipped it out of here. We can take it back."

Umetco official John Hamrick agrees that the waste is anything but frightening. He says that the radiation level of the waste already at the site is much higher than what would come from Denver, and he says the site will remain stable for at least 1,000 years. Hamrick points to several acres of carefully placed boulders and says, "That's 10.5 million tons of waste we've covered and stabilized." He adds that the 100,000 tons of Denver waste "is just a thimbleful in the barrel."

A ruckus radiates

While locals look forward to taking the waste, people elsewhere are raising a ruckus. Marv Ballantyne, a member of Western Colorado Congress, a regional environmental group based in Montrose, Colo., says that if Uravan accepts Denver's radioactive waste, it could open the door to more.

"To be known as Colorado's waste place, is that what they really want?" he asks. "This creates a stigma for the whole area."

Ballantyne says many communities around the town of Telluride are benefiting from an economic spillover from the ski resort, which could hit the skids if the region becomes known as a waste dump.

Others are concerned about increased truck traffic on Highway 141, one of the state's scenic byways.

Jim Hanley, EPA's Superfund project manager, estimates that over an 18-month period, nearly 11,000 truck loads of waste would be carted away from the Denver site. If the agency selects Umetco's bid, the waste would likely travel to Grand Junction by train, then be loaded into trucks for the 90-mile trip to Uravan, says Hanley.

Squeezed between towering canyon walls, the narrow, twisting road follows the Dolores River. Jack Treece, a real estate agent in the town of Gateway, says the canyon walls will magnify truck noise, creating a racket that could affect property values. "People looking at scenic property really consider things like noise and traffic," says Treece. He also worries about accidents, which could dump contaminating material into the river.

As opposition mounts, the former uranium towns may have a difficult time getting the waste to come their way. A bill sponsored by a state legislator that was meant to encourage the EPA to first consider disposal sites within Colorado was voted down in committee. Rep. Kay Alexander, R, had hoped to keep money spent on cleaning up the Denver site within the state. "I sure would like it to stay and benefit Colorado," she said.

EPA's Hanley says his agency has heard overwhelming opposition from the western Colorado towns of Telluride, Montrose and Gateway, and also from Canon City, another Colorado community with a site licensed to accept the waste. He says most of the supporting comments, and there are very few, are from Nucla and Naturita. Hanley says he'll think twice before considering either Colorado site, but adds that the bid process is still open, and he expects to receive one from Umetco.

Nucla's mayor, deKoevend, says, "It's all about outsiders trying to save us from ourselves."

Robyn Morrison is an HCN intern.


  • Jim Hanley, Environmental Protection Agency, 800/227-8917;
  • Western Colorado Congress, 970/249-1978;
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