Uranium trucks hit area highways

Uranium mining has returned to the Four Corners region. One of the side effects of the current mini-boom is that radioactive materials are now traveling area roads in the back of trucks. While Durango is not directly on the trucking route, local residents don’t have to travel far to bump into a semi carrying uranium.

The Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of General Atomics, has reopened six uranium mines in the region. Five are north of Dove Creek in the Paradox Valley and another is near the old Uravan townsite, which was abandoned because of high radiation levels.

“We’ve been gradually reopening mines and hauling ore for two years now,” said Jerry Powers, Cotter’s manager of administration. “But we only recently got to our peak of eight to 10 trucks a day.”

A spike in the value of uranium drove the reopenings, and the spike is tied in part to consumer demand for alternative power sources as natural gas prices have risen. Another factor is a diminishing uranium reserve worldwide. As a result, the per-pound price of uranium has doubled in the last year, from $10 to $20.

Currently, eight to 10 trucks per day are traveling a 300-mile route from the mines to a mill in Cañon City. From Paradox and Uravan, they travel northeast through Naturita and Norwood, come close to Telluride, pass through Ridgway and Montrose, and then take U.S. Highway 50 through Gunnison over Monarch Pass and on to Cañon City.  

Area residents and activist groups have raised concerns about the trucks. However, Powers dismisses them. He said that though the material is radioactive, it has not been enriched and poses little threat. In fact, the uranium is traveling in open containers covered only by tarps.

“It is considered a hazardous material, but not hazardous enough to require placarding,” Powers said. “It’s basically dirt, but it does possess radioactivity.”

Groups have also raised grievances that a portion of the material is being used in the construction of nuclear weapons. Powers countered that all the uranium is being enriched into concentrated uranium for use in nuclear power plants.

“That ore is shipped to our mill in Cañon City where it is enriched to be fuel for nuclear power plants,” Powers said. “None of it is used for weapons construction.”

Incidentally, General Atomics, the parent company of Cotter Corp., is a major munitions contractor for the U.S. military.

Local students ace assessment tests

Local students have continued to outscore students statewide on their annual assessment tests. Durango School District 9-R students earned top marks in the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests in reading, writing, math and science.

The Colorado Department of Education released the scores to the public last Tuesday. Local scores indicate that the percentage of district students who scored proficient or advanced improved “significantly” from the previous year.

“Our teachers, students and families deserve congratulations for their hard work,” said Superintendent Mary Barter. “The majority of our students already perform at a high level, so every percentage point of improvement indicates the degree to which our teachers attend to each and every one of their students’ learning needs.”

However, the district will not know if it meets “Adequate Yearly Progress” under No Child Left Behind until later this month. Last year, 9-R failed to meet adequate yearly progress and was placed on “improvement” status, because it missed targets for high school special education students and numerous reading and math scores.

Regardless, the district is crediting this year’s high scores to a shift in philosophy and the use of data to improve instruction and student learning.

“Our community should be extremely proud of their students’ test results, because they demonstrate how hard our teachers are working to teach students what they need to learn to become successful in life,” said Donna Deeds, director of 9-R elementary student achievement. “We’re proud of our CSAP scores, too, but more importantly, we’re proud of how our teachers use these assessments to meet the learning needs of individual students.”

Hanging Flume listed as endangered

A Four Corners area landmark has landed in an auspicious place. The Hanging Flume, a 19th century, 13-mile waterway built into the walls of the Dolores River Canyon, has been named as one of the 100 most endangered sites on the planet.

The World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit group that works to rescue and preserve imperiled places, recently released its global watch list. The list is a call to action on behalf of threatened cultural monuments worldwide. The hope is that the listing will help raise funds needed for rescue and to spur local communities to take action.

“The World Monuments Watch provides a valuable barometer of the state of heritage preservation worldwide,” said Bonnie Burnham, the fund’s president. “The biennial Watch list tells us not only which sites are in peril, but also what kinds of threats are endangering the world’s heritage.”

When it was functional, the Hanging Flume transported more than 20 million gallons of water a day for use in hydraulic gold mining. Trestles were built over ditches while sections suspended over the river were attached to the sheer rock faces with the aid of cantilevered iron placements.

The flume was abandoned shortly after the Montrose Placer Mining Co. went bankrupt in the 1890s. Now, the artifact faces a variety of threats. Over the years, scavengers have carried away its wooden elements for use in other projects, creating large gaps in the length of the structure. Stretches that have survived have been damaged by biological growth and erosion of the sandstone cliff face. The Bureau of Land Management requested the listing in hopes of conserving the structure and putting it on the map for eco-tourists.

Alternative fuel coalition takes form

Durango and the Western Slope are getting more serious about alternative fuels. Under the umbrella of Region 9 Economic Development District, an alternative fuels coalition is taking shape.

The entire Western Slope is aiming for a Clean Cities Coalition designation from the U.S. Department of Energy. The hope is to reduce the region’s dependence on imported oil, reduce vehicle emissions and improve air quality. The designation would help the communities of the Western Slope access federal funding, make bulk purchases of alternative vehicles and network with other communities exploring alternatives.

Laura Lewis, economic development planner for Region 9, said the move is grassroots and a proactive step to come up to speed.

“In terms of alternative fuels, we’re not on par with larger urban areas yet,” Lewis said. “But we are more proactive from an individual level. This could give a boost to those efforts.”

Lewis said that the Western Slope faces unique challenges in terms of its isolation. “At some point, it’s going to be more economical to go with biodiesel,” she said. “However, we do have an issue with getting it here. If the coalition can get funding, it might help with that effort.”

A meeting to discuss the coalition has been scheduled for Thurs., Aug. 11, at 10 a.m. at the Region 9 offices in Bodo Park. Individuals, organizations, governments and businesses are all encouraged to attend the meeting and join the partnership. For more information, call Region 9 at 247-9621.

 

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