Moab uranium boom rumored
New claims filed amid big leap in the price of uranium

A rider descends Moab’s Long Canyon near Jug Handle Arch. This road is located just downstream from Moab’s massive uranium tailings pile. Speculation is currently pointing to the possibility of a resurgence of uranium mining in the nearby tourism mecca./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Amy Maestas

Just as the Department of Energy formalized its plans to remove nearly 12 tons of radioactive debris left over from Moab’s uranium boom, the southwestern Utah town is abuzz over prospects of another era of uranium mining in the region. Reaction to the rumors is mixed.

For some, such a possibility is unsettling, because they see daily the tons of festering waste left behind from the first and second booms in the 1950s and 1970s. During those booms, fledgling miners showed up in the small town with Geiger counters in hands and grins on their faces. When the high times were over, most walked away with deep pockets and fortunes for life. Today, some 30 years later, Moab and nearby towns are still fighting to clean up the mess, and dozens of former miners and residents are dying from the fallout.

“The last time around, we learned that the cost of nuclear power was far more than anyone knew. And we learned that there isn’t any solution for storage when the mining is done,” says Bill Hedden, executive director of Grand Canyon Trust.

Hedden knows well the lingering damage of such mining. For years he and the nonprofit trust have vigorously lobbied the federal government to clean up the 130-acre tailings pile that sits on the bank of the Colorado River. Clearly visible on the edge of Moab’s town limits, the neatly sculpted pile simmers in the scorching desert heat, leeching contaminants into the river that supplies drinking water to more than 20 million people downstream.

Only recently has the federal government made clear its plans to clean up the mess left behind by energy giant Atlas Minerals Corporation. The Atlas mill closed in 1984, but the pile has not been dismantled or the land reclaimed. Work will begin in late 2006 to transport the pile to government-managed land in nearby Crescent Junction. That project may take as long as three years. To Hedden, the pile is an example of how clearly residents and government officials of Southeast Utah must think before backing any possible activity.

“We’d be plunging recklessly into a boom without giving it any thought about how we will deal with the aftereffects,” Hedden explains.

Talk of resurgence in the industry began to spread earlier this spring after a mining figurehead at a uranium expo in Grand Junction, declared that there is enough uranium left on the Colorado Plateau to make people fortunes, just as happened in the 1950s and 1970s. Demands for electricity and other fuel sources continue to rise but there are fewer sources of energy, he claimed. That could put the Utah desert back on the mining map.

An even bigger push came from Mark Steen, son of mining mogul Charlie Steen. The elder Steen found the mother lode of uranium in 1950, opened his famous Mi Vida mine, and made scads of money over many decades. Mark Steen wrote recently in a Moab newspaper that southeastern Utah could make up the shortfall in uranium needed to fuel operating nuclear power plants.

In recent months, Moab’s Grand County clerk’s office has seen an increase in the number of claim holders renewing their claims and even new claims being filed. So far, not much has come of those actions. Market prices have also increased, according to business statistics, with the price of uranium going up $7 per pound in the past four years. Today, a pound of uranium fetches $30 – a significant price considering the traditionally low prices since the late 1970s, when the notorious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania started giving uranium a bad name.

Though nothing of the sort happened during Moab’s frenzy, the health and environmental effects are still significant. Countless residents died from radiation-related illnesses. Countless more are alive and suffering. In some places in southern Utah, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found penetrating gamma radiation 25 times higher than emergency levels, and found cancer-causing radon levels 44 times higher than the EPA’s standard for homes.

If there is renewed uranium mining activity, Grand County Councilor Judy Carmichael believes it will be minimal. She doesn’t give much credibility to the idea of a third boom.

“I think most of it is farther south than Moab. But even in Moab, since we no longer have a mill I don’t really expect it to be a concern. If two or three mines opened, it wouldn’t have much of an impact,” she says.

Since the heady days of the uranium frenzy, Moab has transformed from a mining town that nearly shriveled up and died, to a bustling tourist town that is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. Given its strong foothold in that industry, few believe Moab would even come close to mimicking the way it was half-a-century ago.

Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Tourism Council, says she hasn’t heard rumors with enough substance to worry about another surge in mining. Consequently, she doesn’t fear Moab changing its persona.

Nor does Hedden, if even for different reasons. He says the local economy and the community have changed so much, uranium miners and companies won’t be able to wreak such havoc and get away with it.

“It’s similar to Durango and its changing community and economy since its mining days,” Hedden explains. “The people are so different here now that it would have to be done in a very different way than before.” •



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