On Jan. 14, Mesa County Commissioners unanimously voted to permit a uranium mine near Gateway Canyons Resort and John Brown Road, a popular public lands access route. They argued that uranium mining will create a new tourism and recreation industry. Commissioner Justman explained how New Yorkers will appreciate an opportunity to brag to their friends about seeing a real uranium mine.
“How cool would that be?” he asked.
As a person who grew up in a community so contaminated by the uranium industry that the area was declared a Superfund site shortly before I graduated from high school, I can’t help but disagree with Mr. Justman and say it wouldn’t be cool at all. Virtually every point made at the permit hearing last week in favor of a new Mesa County uranium mine should have been used as argument to deny the permit, yet Commissioners perceived those weaknesses as assets.
The Cotter Uranium Mill in Canon City was still operating when I was in elementary school. Cotter is infamous for polluting and ruining the groundwater in a community which relied on that water for personal consumption, gardens, and livestock. When Cotter finally began lining the ponds they’d been filling with radioactive waste for decades, the lining was damaged during installation. Cotter feigned surprise when the radioactive waste seeped through holes in the pond lining and continued to contaminate groundwater and citizens.
As Canon City residents have learned, poison, especially in water or dust, knows no boundaries. It flows with the water and blows with the wind. The elementary school I attended lies just outside the borders of the Fremont County community, which was declared a Superfund site. My school was small, with fewer than 20 teachers working there at a time. I remember hearing as a kid about teachers who had gotten cancer. Cancers continue to hit teachers from that school at relatively young ages and are often unusual sorts, like brain tumors. A rough count today confirms that at least 11 teachers I knew from that school died from cancer.
There are few studies to verify the impacts of radiation poisoning on communities because no one with power will fund them, and those impacted are unable to fight corrupt politicians and corporations on their own because they’re poor, isolated, sick, or dead. It apparently doesn’t matter anyway because our County Commissioners and other uranium advocates disregard facts and personal experience as “anecdotal evidence.”
Just two months ago, the Denver Post reported that a damaged pipe was leaking thousands of gallons of water out of the Cotter site for the third time in three years. When an applicant for the Mesa County uranium mine permit boasted about his experience cleaning up the Cotter site and his partner explained that the proposed mine is “not any place where it can cause harm,” in part because it won’t be visible to the public, not a single eyebrow was raised among the commissioners.
Commissioner Aquafresca stated he’s “glad people with expertise are willing to invest here.”
Commissioner Pugliese said if the mining endeavors aren’t successful, “we hope you will clean up your mess.”
And Commissioner Justman added, “We’re happy Mesa County can be on the frontline.”
To their credit, the commissioners did ask how many jobs this new mine would create. The applicant estimated that the mine would require 20 employees, but that they would most likely all be Utah residents. With some push back from the commissioners, the applicant conceded that there could be room to hire one person from Mesa County if he were experienced and well-trained.
To that, Commissioner Aquafresca stated that he doesn’t want the board to be in a position to reject small businesses just because they’re small, and Commissioner Pugliese mentioned that “every job created is important, even if it’s just one.”
In approving the mining permit, Mesa County Commissioners once again demonstrated their shortsightedness and disregard for the real drivers of our economy, such as tourism, families, and retirees. And if they are correct that tourists really want to explore uranium mines, there are currently 1,500 unremediated uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt along Highway 141, many of which continue to seep radiation into the Dolores River.
A fourth generation Coloradan, GJ Free Press columnist Robyn Parker is the former host of the progressive community radio show, Grand Valley Live. She is a stay-at-home mom, active community volunteer and board member for local environmental and social justice organizations. Robyn may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.