© 2023 KVNF Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

"Uranium Drive-In" Tells Story of Struggling But Hopeful West End

San Juan Huts Day 5 via Flickr (CC BY-SA)

Residents from Montrose County’s West End recently gathered for a screening of “Uranium Drive-In,” a documentary that tells the story of the ill-fated Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, and a tight-knit community desperate for jobs and some hint of a brighter economy.

Jennifer Thurston is an environmental activist profiled in the film for her work opposing the proposed mill in Montrose County. She lives in Norwood, just down the road from Naturita on the San Miguel-Montrose county line.

Driving into Naturita for the screening, the second time the film's been shown here, Thurston says she's pretty much the villain of the story. She's the outsider environmentalist opposing a uranium mill in a region founded on uranium mining, one that hasn't had a steady source of jobs since that industry died out decades ago.

“There is definitely a feeling that environmentalists are often interfering in local issues,” Thurston says.

And that's pretty much the story here: a struggling community hears that someone’s planning to build what would be the country's first conventional uranium mill in over 30 years, right in their back yard.

The mill would bring jobs, money and most importantly, a means to stay in a place where family and roots have fought hard against shuttered buildings and a stagnant economy.

Here's the back story. Energy Fuels, the company behind the mill, gets the go-ahead from the State of Colorado in 2011, but then an environmental group called Sheep Mountain Alliance based in telluride tries to stop the mill.

They appeal the state's approval, and the mill gets tied up in the courts. Locals in Nucla and Naturita are outraged.

They don't understand why Telluride cares what happens here. These towns are hurting, maybe even dying, people are moving away. People need work. And like one character from the film says, “the people complaining the most are driving to the protests in their Mercedes.”

“There's been mills down here for over a hundred years and they never bothered anybody in Telluride before,” says Norwood resident Betty Greager.

Credit Suzan Beraza/Reel Thing
A scene from the film of Betty Greager and her husband Howard. (Howard has since passed away.)

Her family’s story is featured in the film. Greager's husband and her father both worked in uranium mills in Telluride and nearby Uravan, the abandoned mining town that's now a Superfund site. The Environmental Protection Agency worked to clean up the contamination there for fifteen years, from 1986 to 2001.

“And consequently, my dad and both of my brothers and my husband all died from lung problems,” Greager says, “but still, it's not affecting the people in Telluride and it's not going to.”

Greager says her dad and husband smoked, it wasn't just the mills that killed them. But regardless, her point is basically that of the old folk song: it's nobody's business but their own.

The us-versus-them debate over the mill might seem irrelevant by now. The environmentalists lost the permit battle over the mill, but the company decided not to move forward with it anyway. The uranium market sunk after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and Energy Fuels figured the mill they already had in Blanding, Utah would bring in enough money by itself.

But it's not that simple, people here are still bitter, and the way they see it, the legal battle hurt the mill's prospects as much as the low price of uranium did.

That frustration is still very real, and at the same time, Greager tells me people are still holding out hope that the market will bounce back and the uranium jobs will come here.

“Good thing about it, if it ever does come back and it is feasible, I don't think they can stop 'em again,” she says.

“It's, yea, kind of a pipe dream right now,” says Naturita resident Brad McKinney. He and his dad Carl are seeing the film for the first time, but they know the story. Like many others here, they see the mill as a last hope.

Still, Brad says they know it's mostly just a dream. He’s talked to old miners in the area who say the price of uranium is basically the same as what it was when the industry tapered off in the '60s. Except now, electricity, diesel and everything else that goes into the production process is more expensive.

So that's where the film leaves off. Energy Fuels' license for the mill says they only have until 2018 to get it up and running, but everybody knows that's not likely. So what now?

“If uranium's not going to happen here they need something,” says Suzan Beraza, the film’s director.

She premiered the film in Telluride, and says the people there seemed to wake up to the fact that their neighbors were hurting.

“I feel like they felt compassion for what was going on here,” she says, “and maybe before they had kind of disregarded it, and hadn’t thought much about how tough it really was to live here.”

The two communities have started brainstorming alternative ideas for jump-starting the West End economy, ones that don’t rely on uranium.

There's been talk about setting up a local call-center to book vacations for Telluride tourists. Some have proposed bringing a music festival to town, or opening up old miners for tours.

Environmental films are a dime a dozen. But the reason this story matters is that it's not just the story of the West End. It's the story of rural communities across the country - the constant challenge of balancing the immediate needs for growth and development with the longer-term responsibilities of protecting the land, and building an economy that won't go the way of so many boom-and-bust towns before.

"Uranium Drive-In" doesn't ask its audience to pick a side, to love or hate the uranium industry, but Beraza says there is a message.

“What people here want their future to be really depends on what they want their future to be, and not what someone is trying to impose upon them,” she says.

According to at least one local, it's not like all hope is lost.

A man named Fritz from Nucla was seeing the film for the first time, and he told me that frankly, this community's future isn't as bleak as it may seem.

“They only showed the downtrodden homes and not the homes that are being taken care of,” he says. “Yea, things aren't as bad as they made 'em look.”