Superfund cleanups are a priority for Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He wants to cut through red tape that has left more than a thousand sites still contaminated with everything from radioactive waste to lead.
He also wants to remove sites that have already been cleaned up from the so-called National Priority List, which has more than 1300 sites. One of those sites is the town of Uravan.
After hours in the dark main room of the Rimrocker Historical Society, Jane Thompson showed off what put this part of Western Colorado on the map. She turned on a geiger counter, which began wildly clicking due to the radioactive yellow rock in a nearby antique jar.
“Carnotite ore is what they milled here,” she said. “It’s got uranium, vanadium, and radium in it.”
Thompson also helps spearhead an annual picnic some 15 minutes up the road, as she did last weekend. She calls it a reunion picnic at the site of her hometown of Uravan.
“The things that happened here were very important,” Thompson said.
A few dozen people gathered under trees and canopies in the otherwise hot empty field on that late August day. Uravan, a tiny mining company town, provided uranium for nuclear weapons developed during the Manhattan Project.
“Even though the town is gone, we feel like that the history of those people need(s) to be kept,” she said.
Uravan — it is gone. Not just the mill where those yellow rocks were processed into so-called yellowcake uranium ore; everything is gone.
“Every house. Every tree. Everything was dug up, shredded and buried in a big hole on top of the hill,” Thompson said.
Decades and decades of mining left Uravan contaminated with radioactive chemicals and heavy metals. The EPA declared it a superfund site in the 1980s and ordered the mining company, Umetco, to start clearing away the entire town.
You’d never know the empty picnic area was once a community of about 1000 people. Today, you just see the bottom of a crumbling sandstone river valley.
Larry Cooper, 91, sat in a camping chair, wearing suspenders and breathing with the help of an oxygen tank.
“I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said. “I didn’t know it would hurt ya.”
He worked in the mills and mines around Uravan, starting in the 1950s. His health suffered.
“I got cancer. I lost half of my lung on the right side,” he said.
Registered Nurse Joanna Godwin said it’s very common for former Uravan workers. She attended the picnic with a non-profit called Nuclear Care Partners. They provide free health care through the Department of Labor for medical issues that can be traced back to the mining of radioactive materials.
“We’ve had people with skin cancers. Pulmonary things are very prevalent. It’s a whole array of things,” she said, referring to conditions in former Uravan employees.
After two decades of cleanup, the EPA declared the remediation of Uravan wrapped up in 2008. But, this empty-field-that-used-to-be-a-town was never taken off the list. The agency says it needs further investigation and study before giving it a clean bill of health.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently submitted comments to the EPA, saying the agency’s continued work in Uravan is duplicative, costly and causing delay. That seems to be the kind of thing Administrator Pruitt is looking to streamline.
Still, Jane Thompson doesn’t hold out any hope the Uravan site will ever totally be out of the hands of the federal government.
“Well, I think it will remain forever,” she said.
But, she wants to keep having these annual reunion picnics, where the real star of the show is the dessert: an actual yellow cake, with yellow frosting and black radioactive signs on top.
Uravan residents may have lost their town, but not their sense of humor.
- An upcoming episode of the Rocky Mountain PBS program Colorado Experience will also feature Uravan. Watch “Uranium Mania” November 2nd on RMPBS.
- Are Uranium boom times soon coming back to the West? Check out Madelyn Beck’s story here.