Loyal Order of the Moose ladies’ auxiliary members waited in the back of the empty meeting room in their Nucla lodge early Monday morning this week, tending to urns of hot coffee and a breakfast buffet they had prepared for the large crowd that would soon descend upon them.
The day promised to hold some fireworks, as dozens of members of the public made their way to tiny Nucla from across the Western Slope to express their very strong opinions on the matter of whether the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment should issue a permit for the Piñon Ridge uranium mill, which the Canadian company Energy Fuels wants to build in the nearby Paradox Valley.
For the most part, the evidentiary hearing, which has unfolded under the benign gaze of a mounted moose-head in this meeting room over the past week, with Judicial Arbiter Richard Dana presiding, has consisted of technical information, as expert witnesses have worked to establish a record of the completeness and adequacy (or lack thereof) of Energy Fuels’ mill application.
Monday was the day set aside specifically for public comment.
But Moose member Dan Hammond, a rangy, quiet man who supports the mill coming to his community, said he had no intention of participating in the process. He stood with his back to the wall as folks from Grand Junction, Telluride and Ridgway spilled into the meeting room and waited for their turn to speak.
Hammond, like many West Enders, worked in uranium mines for much of his life. His community is comfortable with the industry, he said. It’s true that quite a few of the old-time miners have died. They’ve died of lots of causes, including drinking and smoking, he pointed out. Hammond himself is doing fine.
“We don’t glow in the dark,” he said.
Mill advocates – mostly West Enders like Hammond – were far outnumbered at Monday’s proceedings by those who made the long drive to Nucla to denounce the proposed mill, the company that wants to build it, the state agency that would be regulating it and the uranium industry in general.
“Everywhere there has been uranium mining and milling, there have been tragic consequences. Nothing is safe. Period,” said Rein Van West of Ouray County, setting the tone for the day with his opening comments.
Many of those present belonged to environmental advocacy groups, such as the Sheep Mountain Alliance, Ridgway-Ouray Community Council and Western Colorado Congress, and were well-drilled in the specifics of what the health, environmental and socio-economic ramifications of the mill could be. Often, their comments began with the basic sentiment, “I feel for the people of the West End, but....”
For every job that would be created in the West End, one woman from Telluride argued, many more jobs would be lost in neighboring tourism-driven economies due to the taint of having a nearby uranium mill.
“Those jobs put our health and environment at risk,” Ridgway activist John Metcalf added.
Angela Hause, a ski and mountain guide from Ridgway, said she is “very concerned the presence of the uranium mill will drive those who come here away,” and pointed out that recent episodes of dust layers on snowpack come from a from fetch area that includes Paradox Basin, the proposed site of the uranium mill.
“The impacts of this mill would extend far greater than this basin,” she said. “I recognize the need for jobs, but with such high stakes, I ask you to consider the far reaching consequences of the mill.”
Norwood-based Organic farmer Barclay Daranyi said the mill would be a possible threat to her business’s survival, as well. “Airborne radioactive particulates travel 200 miles, and can be easily found in mountain snowpack,” she said. “Once contamination occurs it cannot be remediated. The record is clear. Uranium is best left in the ground and out of human hands.”
Some of the most emotionally jarring testimony of the day came from Matt Bane, a Dolores electrician, who described how his health has been affected by recent work in the uranium industry. He was diagnosed with brain damage, nerve damage and damage to his cardiac system, pulmonary system, endocrine system and gastrointestinal system, after working in 2009 to vent a local uranium mine owned by Denison Mines Corporation (bought this year by Energy Fuels), where radon had built up to critically dangerous levels. Fellow workers who reported the incident to Mine Safety and Health Administration were later laid off by Denison, he said.
“I know from working in the uranium industry, there are safety and environmental issues. Denison ignored regulations. I am not for or against this mill, but I believe somebody has to monitor this really closely and not to depend on the government to do it, because they won’t,” Bane said. “If they do build a mill and start up uranium mining again, we need to monitor it extremely close, so there won’t be guys like me.”
A few outspoken West Enders, meanwhile, argued persuasively in favor of the mill and the economic benefits it would bring to the region.
Reed Mitchell, the commercial realtor who sold the 800-acre mill site in Paradox Valley to Energy Fuels, argued it is an unfair comparison to “equate today to what happened around here in 40s and 50s and spread blanket of doom over our future. The people who live around here want it.”
Bob Roberts of Naturita pointed out the seeming hypocrisy in the fact that many communities on the Western Slope, from Silverton to Telluride, ship their trash to a landfill near Nucla, where the company Waste Management has its Western Slope headquarters. “One community sends its solid waste sewage out to a location just north of us to spread it on the ground,” he said. “That seems a little more toxic than dirt out of the ground. If you want to complain about polluting the environment, figure out a better way to get rid of trash and sewage than dumping it on us.”
Dianna Reems, president of the Chamber of Commerce for Nucla/Naturita, referenced a 2009 survey conducted by the chamber that showed 81 percent of local residents support the mill. “This area has been economically depressed for over 30 years, and one of the reasons is because of the loss of the uranium and vanadium industry,” she said. “My dad is 84 and my uncle is 89. Both swam in the mill tailings pond, and took trashcan lids and sledded down yelllowcake tailings piles. They are still in very good health. This area is generational; this is part of our history. This is our problem to solve, and this is one component we are looking at to solve our economic woes. We want to see those jobs come.”
Naturita Town Board member Margo Roberts took offense at the way that many mill opponents seem to view members of her community. “It upsets me greatly when people get up here and disparage the intelligence of our residents, when they insinuate we are uneducated,” she said. “It upsets us when people look down on us like we don’t know. We do know the dangers of mining uranium. New regulations were not in place 30 years ago. This is a new mill, not an old mill. We are starting out with a clean slate. In my opinion, I feel these advocacy groups are using fear mongering based on ignorance; their information is outdated and has no bearing.”
Some of the final public comments of the day came from representatives of two such advocacy groups, the Canon City-based group Colorado Citizens against Toxic Waste, and the New Mexico-based Blue Water Downstream Alliance. Via speaker phone, two women talked about what it was like to live with the legacy of a uranium mill in their own communities.
“We were previously known for our carrot crops, but now we are one of the most contaminated areas in the country,” the disembodied voice of the woman from New Mexico began. “We have been exposed to unsafe drinking water, windblown contamination and plummeting property values. We fear the same is about to happen to your very beautiful area. We believe a mill in Paradox Valley will change your community forever. No one wants to live in our community or visit our community anymore. My daughter couldn’t stay in our house because she is pregnant. Many of our friends and neighbors are dead or sick. It is a shame you would consider this.”
As the day’s proceedings wound down, Nucla resident Debby Gabriel sat on her own in the back of the room, squinting into late afternoon sunlight that blazed through a west-facing window straight into her eyes. She had been listening to the hearing on and off throughout the day, going back and forth between the meeting room and her work as a bartender in the Moose Lodge’s bar in the back of the building.
A self-proclaimed mill advocate, Gabriel admitted that the day’s events had left her emotionally shaken.
“Both sides go overboard,” she reflected. “But if you really listen to their hearts, it’s interesting.”
Gabriel’s father-in-law had worked in Uravan. “We lost him to lung cancer,” she said. Her husband had worked there too. “And he’s still healthy.”
“It bothers me,” she said. “The local people that this affects are not here. But this is not just about us. I’ve seen that today.”
Thirty years ago, when Gabriel moved to the West End, three schools were full, and businesses were open. “It was the boom,” she said. “But do you really want something like that to come back? It’s different than what you think, when you really listen. I raised my boys here, but I wouldn’t want them to come back. I support the mill, but not for my family. And that’s not right.”
Samantha Wright at email@example.com or Tweet @iamsamwright