Stalking the wild carnotite
By Art Goodtimes
URANIUM TOUR … The BLM’s Barb Sharrow of Montrose and Connie Clementson of Dolores both brought a dozen staffers along last month for a tour of unreclaimed uranium mines in the West Ends of San Miguel and Montrose counties. Sheep Mountain and INFORM tagged along, as did State Dept. of Health and Environment Abandoned Mine Program regulators, and even a freelancer for the Daily Planet. San Miguel County had asked for the tour, and both Commissioner Joan May and I were able to make the trip (Commissioner Elaine Fischer had to go to Junction for another chemo treatment) … While I’m personally opposed to America’s pursuit of nuclear power, as is the Green Party I belong to, I’m also a realist. Both Democrats and Republicans support the atomic genie, and see it as a source of “clean” power. Veteran uranium miners in Naturita and Nucla are ready to start work. While I hope we turn away from the radioactive path, there’s good odds we may be seeing another uranium boom in this country before the decade is out. And if we do, San Miguel and Montrose counties are sitting on about a quarter of the existing uranium mine workings in the nation. I would want to push to clean up any lingering environmental messes from the first uranium boom, before we started another… With the tour, I wanted to see first-hand the kinds of abandoned uranium-era workings I’ve run across in exploring the slickrock country to the west of us. And to better understand what kind of threats they posed. I’d heard that there were “hundreds” and even “over a thousand” abandoned mine sites in our county. Were they invisibly heaping gobs of radioactivity into the air and water? Was it dangerous to breathe around open mine shafts, to stand by piles of waste rock, to have water-soluble uranium and vanadium leaking into our perennial streams? … In the end, our four vehicles made two stops – visiting one unreclaimed abandoned-mine operation on BLM lands in San Miguel County and another in Montrose County. And it was important to be outdoors, on the sites. But in reality mostly we stood around in the needlegrass and weeds, talking. Exchanging information from a number of perspectives – the kind of collaborative data-sharing that is essential for solving public-land issues. And then we broke up into smaller groups, in our separate vehicles, discussing things with various participants … The BLM in our area has done a pretty impressive job closing mine openings that have presented safety hazards for recreationists, while allowing access for bats. Money is always short, so instead of preparing a massive EIS locating and identifying all the mines and mining occurrences pock-marking public lands in our area, they’ve opted to do the work piecemeal, by categorical exclusion, as the money dribbles in. Closing the most egregious safety hazards first, and then working their way through the inventory and mitigation of sites in an area like the Big Gyp Valley, where there is a heavy concentration of old mines … And while human safety is a crucial concern, a number of us wondered about environmental damages. It turns out, due to a complicated set of factors only government can dream up, there’s some funding for human safety concerns, but very little money available for environmental reclamation … So, how bad were the mine sites as regards dangerous radioactivity? Not so bad, really. Radon gas coming out of adits and shafts could be a concern for breathing, which is why sealing them up is a good thing. But the various meters and machines our group was using suggested that waste rock and most of the sites were just a little above background radiation, with a few hot-spot anomalies … The land was high desert. There were no perennial streams in the area. Gully-washers could take some radioactive material down the drainage a ways, but it was miles to the nearest stream and water transport didn’t seem to be that big a deal … It wasn’t an ecological emergency. But it was an undesirable pollution of public lands. And to that end it was being addressed, slowly, but consistently over the years … If there are some big takeaways at looking at the sites and at the maps and understanding the unregulated free-for-all that was uranium mining in the last boom, it’s that uranium today has to bond for and complete reclamation of any public lands used, so as not to leave the messes for taxpayers to clean up 50 years later. And that there ought to be a surcharge on every ton of ore mined and every ounce of raffinate milled – enough to ensure human safety and environmental reclamation for old mines as well as new. That’s just good public policy, however you come down on the uranium industry.
THE TALKING GOURD
walk slowly with others in the woods
ask a mushroom if radiation -
we want to believe -
sitting, glass of wine at the inn
— Rachelle Woods
BAR MITZVAH … Got to attend my first Bar Mitzvah. Peter and Jody Waldor invited me to their middle son Nathaniel’s Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Peter is the new San Miguel County Poet Laureate and his family are all dedicated mycophiles. We’ve forayed in the local mountains and share a love of wild fungi … The rabbi was from the Tahoe area, but he’s also a member of Adventure Rabbis, a group out of Boulder, who like to celebrate Jewish rituals out in the open air, on camping trips or hikes into the wilderness. It was impressive. A beautiful sunshine morning in the synagogue of the San Juans. He had us sing along on many of the liturgical chants. Spoke to us of tradition and of how we had to make things new in changing times. But most impressive was Nate’s chanting the Torah section for this week – reading directly from the Hebrew letters. All of us in attendance got to hold the Torah up as the scroll was unrolled. Nate performed his ritual duties admirably well. And everyone felt welcome and at home in the ceremony … I find it such a good learning to experience the spiritual traditions of others and to be included in them by people of compassion and tolerance.
Art Goodtimes is a five-term county commissioner in San Miguel County, Colo.