There’s an empty stretch of field off highway 141 in Colorado that used to be the perfect American town. Small houses with white picket fences boasted big flower gardens. Kids played kick the can in the streets, rode their bikes, splashed in swimming pools. On Sundays, they might have watched an Elvis movie on TV. The rent was cheap, the fathers all worked, the mothers stayed at home.
Uravan was placid, friendly and, in most of the ways people usually measure it, safe. For many years, a former resident recalled, there was no law enforcement in the mining company town. Nobody needed it. The kids were good kids, because if they weren’t, the company bosses would kick their whole families out.
The town, named after the minerals extracted and processed there, had secretly supplied uranium to the Manhattan Project during the war. Afterward, the cold war uranium boom made the town prosper.
“When they bury your whole town, they bury your history. There’s a little bit of shame to that,” said Jane Thompson, who grew up in Uravan. Her parents were the second to last family to move out.
Thompson drove me through Uravan early one Sunday morning, pointing to the dip in the ground where the gas station had been, the block of houses where she had grown up. There was nothing left except scrub, battered earth and fences with signs warning, “Caution ☢️ Radioactive Materials.”
After the town of Uravan was deemed to be contaminated, everything is town was buried in concrete. Photograph: Cole Barash
Thomas and her family now live just down the road in Nucla, a shrinking rural town still dependent on the mining industry.
In September, in the wake of a lawsuit from an environmental group, Nucla’s major employer, the local coal-fired power plant, announced that it would be shutting down in 2022. The coal mine that supplied the plant would be shutting down as well. In total, about 80 jobs were at risk – a huge number in a town whose population boasted, according to the 2010 census, only 711 people.
For locals, this decision was a death knell brought on by liberals who live in big cities. Nucla residents bristle at the warnings about the risk of exposure to radiation, and roll their eyes at A-listers like Darryl Hannah, the Hollywood actress known for Splash and Kill Bill, who joined the activism against the local uranium industry.
Liberals fighting against the mining industry are good at telling them no, residents say, but don’t present them with any alternatives – not ones that come with real salaries. Richard Craig, a former Nucla town board member, recalled a comment by a member of an environmental group saying during one of the contentious hearings: “Well, I don’t see why they don’t want to go live in the city.”
“It’s almost like – I hate using this word, it’s being used so often – it’s almost like a conspiracy: ‘We need to move everybody out of rural areas and go live in the cities and suburbs,’” Craig said.