The Denver Post headline "Uranium Mining May Get Buried," about residents in Nunn, a town near Greeley, who oppose building a uranium mine nearby, hit close to home. I grew up in Grand Junction, and the repercussions of the supposedly safe uranium industry that once dominated the area's economy sounded throughout my school days and beyond.
"Hot Town," a December 1971 article in Time magazine, lays the groundwork for the story. Tailings, described as "the gray, sandy debris that piled up in small mountains beside the mills as refuse from the mining operations," were known to be radioactive, but the levels were thought to be so low as to be safe for use as landfill and mixing in concrete. As such, Time pointed out, "thousands of tons of tailings went into the construction of schools, homes, commercial buildings, sidewalks, an airfield and a shopping mall."
At first, town officials shrugged off the negative effects that came to be associated with the tailings, including an increase in birth defects. Eventually, though, it became clear that the tailings had to be removed -- at least as much of the stuff as possible -- and projects went on for years. Example: Tailings were taken out of the house where my mother moved after she remarried during the '80s -- and, if memory serves, that was about when the decision was made to dig up much of tailings-riddled Lincoln Park, among the city's most popular recreation centers. All the little old men who thought they were improving their health by golfing on Lincoln Park's course had no idea they were slowly being irradiated instead.
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The situation near Nunn doesn't directly equate to the Grand Junction story; so far as I can tell, no one is suggesting that mine waste be used as construction material. Nevertheless, my hometown's experiences offer a cautionary tale.