In its second public meeting reviewing uranium mining in southwestern Colorado this week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) received a sharp mandate from Telluride residents: any mining is too much, and its leasing program should be disbanded.
DOE is conducting a series of meetings to take the pulse of people in the Colorado towns of Telluride, Montrose, and Naturita, and in Monticello, Utah, concerning the federal program that leases land to mining companies.
The review marks the first comprehensive analysis of a renewed mining industry in the region, and the Telluride meeting followed one in Montrose Aug. 8. The department held a meeting in Naturita Wednesday night and will end the run in Monticello today.
Comments from the Telluride audience were sharply opposed to the uranium industry and the federal leasing program. Common concerns were the waste products generated through mining and milling and harm to the environment. The DOE, which did not answer questions during the meeting, was also roundly criticized for its neglect of the Telluride area in its reviews.
“The feds call this a legacy project, a legacy program. Is that ironic?” asked Pamela Zoline. The region does need jobs, she said, “but I don’t think any of us want a legacy of toxicity and poison long beyond the management capabilities of our folks to handle it.”
An ideological ridge has long run between Telluride and the communities west of it to the Utah state line, small towns that need jobs after the last boom left their economies badly busted.
Chance Leoff said the costs were too high for a material that could ultimately be exported. “How stupid are we?” he said. “What are we left with? The cleanup. What are we doing here, folks? Yeah, we want the jobs but the cost is just ridiculous.”
Until now, the DOE reviewed the mining operations piecemeal rather than addressing the cumulative impacts of increased production in the region, which it made possible in 2008 with the renewal of its leasing program in the Uravan Mineral Belt, awarding or renewing 31 leases for mining-related activities over 25,000 acres between Naturita and Moab, Utah.
The DOE has frozen all activity on the leases while it reviews the program.
Conservation groups have challenged the Department’s current leasing program for not complying with the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The study will examine the effects of the DOE’s uranium-leasing program on 42 square miles of public land near the Dolores and San Miguel rivers.
The DOE presented five possible plans on Tuesday night, ranging from all-out termination of the uranium leasing program, or ULP, to the status quo.
The lone supporting voice came from the Montrose County Commissioners, via Steve White, director of Montrose County’s Planning and Development Department. The commissioners, White said, thought further review “unnecessary.”
“The socioeconomic impact of ULP leases to the region and the nation should be thoroughly examined,” White read from a statement. “Furthermore, we ask that DOE create a scope of study which will consider the agency’s mission to ‘ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges.’ The ability to develop federal energy leases is critical to the success of this mission and needs to be recognized as such.”
The most dramatic comment of the evening came from David Oyster, a Telluride Town Council member. He walked to the front of the room with six others, who promptly donned black hoods, representing those who died of nuclear attacks or fallouts.
“Sixty-six years ago today more than 40,000 people died in the blinding flash of a nuclear explosion over the Japanese city of Nagasaki,” he read. “The black-hooded figures here stand in silent testimony to those who have died from atomic poison power. Starting the uranium industry anew, here in our region, will not stand.”
The Uravan Mineral Belt is one of the richest uranium deposits in the country. Ore from the belt, which runs from western Colorado to Utah, went into the Manhattan Project and spawned company towns.
A total of 25,000 acres of land in southwestern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah were withdrawn from the public domain during the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency to DOE. In Telluride, there is still deep suspicion of the industry.
“They make these horrendous mistakes. They cost people their lives. They cost the environment,” said Dan Chancellor. “I think that 20 years from now, they’ll be saying, oh yea, that’s what we did in 2011.”
Matthew Baudin is editor of the Telluride Daily Planet, from which this article is reprinted with permission.