The Uravan Mineral Belt is a 70 by 30-mile geological zone of carnotite ore deposits (comprised of uranium, vanadium, and radium) in Colorado's San Miguel, Montrose, and Mesa counties as well as eastern Utah. In 1898 yellow ore extracted from a Roc Creek deposit in Montrose County tested high in uranium and vanadium. Mining camps sprang up at Roc Creek, Calamity, Wedding Bell, and Slick Rock in the radium boom that followed. Soon the nation's first full-scale mill for processing radioactive metals went into operation. Important mining towns included Uravan
, and Bedrock
in Colorado and La Sal and Moab in Utah.
Mining work began in 1910 by both the Radium Luminous Metals Company and the Radium Company of Colorado, to process local carnotite and roscoelite ores into radium, uranium, and vanadium. By 1911, Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania built Joe Jr. Mill to process radium. Radium fetched as much as $100 per milligram in 1913, and Standard Chemical Company's processing plant in Montrose County became the world's largest supplier. From 1910 to 1922, the Uravan Mineral Belt produced half of the world's radium.
In 1928, U.S. Vanadium (USV) purchased the radium concentrating mill and local properties from Standard Chemical, and began producing vanadium and then uranium in 1938. In the early-to-mid-1940s, USV specialized in processing mill tailings into uranium oxide, also known as yellowcake
, and continued that work up until the end of World War II. The yellowcake mined in Uravan was used in the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the Cold War, Colorado's mills produced more than 50 million pounds of uranium for the U.S. weapons stockpile.
Over the decades, wild swings in prices and demand caused mines to close, open, and close again, leaving behind hazardous mine shafts and radioactive mill tailings
. The Topaz Mine, part of the Sunday Mine Complex
, became the last to close in 2009. The cost of remediating the mill sites is staggering: over $1 billion has been This is based on 2018 figures.spent to date
, but plumes of contaminants still pollute the San Miguel, Dolores, and Colorado rivers
. In the 1980s and 1990s, Umetco proposed offsetting the costs of the Uravan cleanup by opening a for-profit radioactive waste dump that was scuttled by public outcry. Today, hundreds of abandoned mine sites
dot the region, mostly on public land, and await remediation.
Although some long-time residents of the Uravan Mineral Belt would welcome it, the prospect of another uranium boom has become increasingly unlikely, at least under current market and political conditions. A nearly ten-year effort to build a new uranium mill in the Paradox Valley
- the first in more than thirty years - was successfully fought by local activists due to its impact on the fish and waterways
of arid Western Colorado. Yet exploratory activities continue across the region, and mines remain on standby status both to avoid cleanup and to restart operations should uranium prices recover.
The region's economy has decisively turned to ecotourism, but uranium's historical legacy lives on. The Rimrocker Historical Society, for example, works toward the restoration and preservation of Uravan. Even after the town was declared a Superfund site
, Rimrocker salvaged two structures and purchased a nearby property historically used as a ballpark that now hosts annual gatherings for former residents.
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" In Western Slope Colorado
—Western Colorado and Eastern Utah
, edited by Rudy C. Epis and Jonathan F. Callender, 165-170. New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, 32nd Field Conference, Western Slope Colorado, 1981. Accessed July 30, 2020.
Fischer, R. P. and L. S. Hilpert. "Geology of the Uravan Mineral Belt
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Frosch, Dan. "A Fight in Colorado Over Uranium Mines." New York Times
, April 16, 2013. Accessed July 30, 2020.
Hessler, Peter. "The Uranium Widows." The New Yorker,
September 6, 2010. Accessed July 30, 2020.
Twitty, Eric. Guide to Assessing Historic Radium, Uranium, and Vanadium Mining Resources in Montrose and San Miguel Counties.
Boulder, CO: Mountain States Historical, 2008.
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management. "Final Uranium Leasing Program.
" 2014. Accessed July 30, 2020.
Zasky, Jason. "Uravan, Colorado." Failure Magazine
, November 21, 2012. Accessed July 30, 2020.