Sun. Jun 16th, 2024

By: Karla Fetrow

The Beautiful Paradox

Tucked in a corner of the extreme western edge of Colorado, is a nearly deserted area called Paradox Valley. Perhaps one paradox about the region is that although it’s close to Moab and the Internationally famous Arches National Park, which contain the world’s largest and most amazing sandstone arches, the area is barely noticed. It has the same ethereal beauty, the same geological formation of deep red sandstone, gypsum, shale and limestone, the same rich history, yet Paradox Valley remains the shy little sister in the background, while the Utah wonders are the stars of the stage.

Its unfortunate anonymity, however, is not how Paradox Valley got its name. A curious phenomena is ascribed to it. The Dolores River runs through it; but instead of traveling from end to end of the 25 mile long valley, it cuts a path across the middle. It was named in 1875 by geologist and surveyor, Albert Charles Peale, who noted that the river did “strange and unexpected things”. It emerges from a narrow gap in one wall, cuts perpendicularly across the valley and exits through another gap. Because of its unusual geography, the river cannot be easily irrigated, but springs and streams fed by snow melt support farming in the northwestern end.

This unusual geographic occurrence can be explained by salt tectonics. Three hundred million years ago, salt deposits began flowing from the turbulent northeast to where the valley is today. Encountering a geologic fold in the rock formation, the salt began pushing upward, forming a dome. Groundwater entering the dome, dissolved the salt, causing it to collapse, creating the valley. It took over a hundred million years for this process to occur, long enough for the Dolores River to have already charted its course. This crossed river course can also be found in Moab, where the Colorado River also cuts crosswise through the Moab Valley. The geological twin to Moab appears on the verge of suffering the same fate. Just as Moab became a bustling industrial town during the 1950’s due to uranium mining, the Canadian company, Energy Fuels, now wants to mill uranium in Paradox Valley.

When History is a Paradox

Paradox has a history of countless struggles, all ending in failures to make dreams come true. It was targeted during the Cattle Wars of the late 1800’s by ranchers battling it out for rangeland and water. With as many fugitive outlaws occupying the wilderness outpost as there were peaceful citizens, the area soon became known as “the slaughterhouse of the west.” Because of its topography, surrounded by soaring sandstone cliffs, and punctuated by the edge of the rugged San Juan mountains, early access to the region was difficult, making it a place largely ignored by law, but not by outlaws. Murder was common, tempers boiled over. Death by violent means so frequent that one author titled his wild west book, “The Hell that was Paradox”.

While cattle ranching was the first attempt to conquer and settle the beautiful but harsh valley, other attempts to cause it to flourish have also ended with prosperity for a few entrepreneurs, but general poverty for the residents. The discovery of copper in the 1890’s brought in an influx of settlers to the valley town of Bedrock. A short time later, uranium was also discovered, and the area was thought to have one of the largest radium ore deposits in the world, until richer deposits were discovered in Belgian Congo. As a uranium source, Paradox was placed on a back burner, although some mining was executed throughout most of the twentieth century.

The Paradox of Economy

Currently, the greatest source of revenue for the valley is salt. The US Bureau of Reclamation began construction on a salt pumping unit in the 1980’s, collecting the saline groundwater from twelve shallow wells along the Dolores River. The system dilutes the brine with water and a corrosion inhibitor, then transports it to a high pressure injection system where it is deposited fourteen thousand feet deep into the existing Precambrian and Paleozoic rocks. To date, this process removes 113,000 tons of salt annually. It has also caused thousands of small earthquakes to resonate through the surrounding area, yet it has not caused the approximately three thousand residents of the valley to thrive.

Despite a history of failure to bring prosperity to the valley through its natural resources, many of the residents are pinning their hopes on the proposed uranium mill, which, if approved, will be the first one developed in the United States in twenty-five years. The Atlas Mining operation in the Moab Valley first opened in 1961 with 300 mines. By 1984, when the uranium mill was put on standby, the mining wastes, laced with radium, uranium, thorium, polonium, ammonia, molybdenum, selenium and nitrates, had grown to 16 million tons and covering 130 acres to a depth of 110 feet. During wet years, when the Colorado River flooded, the mine tailings were not only leaking into, but standing in the drinking water for 25 million users in the states of Nevada, Arizona, California and in Mexico. Reclamation efforts for clean up of the site are estimated at over one billion dollars.

While the demand for uranium reactors has decreased within the Western world since the melt-down of the nuclear power plants in Japan, demands for the uranium have increased in China and India. Uranium value is currently targeted at $59 a pound, giving projected revenues from the milled uranium at over 330 million dollars a year. Even though the promised jobs to the local residents are, at best, dubious, that’s a lot of potential tax revenue coming from Paradox Valley.

Recent settlers to the area have taken a fresh look at the valley’s potential. Organic farms have sprung up on the valley floor, and plans have been discussed for windmills and solar energy. A weakened US economy has quit saving for that expensive vacation at an International resort, and have begun looking at the options close to home. A trend toward back-to-nature camping trips have seized public imagination in recent years, with much of the attention shifting toward small, barely noticed, yet highly scenic areas like Paradox Valley. To make the area even more interesting, the valley contains an astounding number of unmapped petroglyphs, which could also drive tourism into the barely settled region.

Paradox wouldn’t really have a lot to gain by allowing a uranium mill to be developed in its district. The number of jobs it would create are limited, and the potential health hazards are great. It would diminish the value of real estate and its desirability for tourism. There is another crucial factor to consider. The mill would need to use 144 gallons of water a minute, 25 hours a day for the next forty years, to stay in operation. Colorado is already experiencing a water shortage and the wars for water rights have already begun. With climate change, the Ogalla aquifer is expected to lose twenty percent of its water.

In hearings held November 15, the Canadian agency stated “it would be beneficial to the public health and citizen interest” to allow the site to accept radioactive waste and other dangerous materials from all over the country.

Energy Fuels has asked biologists who cited endangerment to the wildlife, the air and water, to reconsider their findings, even though the mill could impact endangered species.

The impact report determined that 99% of the radioactive ore produced at the mill would end up as radioactive waste.  The report also stated that there was only enough water to operate the mill  for five years of its proposed forty year lifespan, and keep the tailings saturated as required.

After so many failures in the past to become a thriving community, it’s understandable that Paradox would like to finally be in the winning circle. It’s understandable that the residents look for and hope for a new source of revenue, but their dreams will not be fulfilled with uranium milling. Their beautiful hide-away from commercial enterprise will only be disrupted and polluted. In forty years, the uranium will be extracted, the land returned to arid desert, the few residents left will recount the stories of the hopeful boom and bust that time after time has characteristically turned Paradox into a ghost town.



By karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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7 thoughts on “Milling Uranium in Paradox Valley”
  1. hello karlsie, great article, also note common western winds flow to the east carrying radioactive dust to surrounding communities like Telluride, Stoner, and other 4 corners towns.
    Colorado is also facing incredible pressure from the fractors, they are exempt from EPA clear air act and clean water act.They use ingreadients like diesel fuel,formaldahyde and other hazardous materials. This process will deprive all downstream states of clean water. It is not long term sustainable energy. This industry is destroying Colorado.Wherever fracting has occured deer population plunged.
    . Benzyne, a carcinagenic byproduct of fracting is contaminating our air.

  2. Shh, I’ve been in a whirlwind trying to keep up with my work, which seems to accumulate faster than I can dispose of it. To make matters worse, my computer royally crashed and I had to buy a new one, after spending two weeks trying to fix it. Oddly, it crashed the day after I wrote this article.

    Big John, greetings! Glad to read your input. They try to keep Colorado’s trials and tribulations out of the network, but we shall prevail.

  3. Awwww.. I woulda fixed your computer for you karlsie. I’m really glad you’re back now. Please don’t leave us again. 🙂

  4. I have been trying now for several years, trying to locate anything documentation on my father, he work in the mines around the Paradox Valley, I have already checked with Ft. Lewis College, nothing from there.
    I’m pretty sure there are to be someone or a company out there who kept records of all the Native American (Navajo workers) between 1950 and 1970. Because every job you usually either clock in or sign in on daily work day.
    I don’t know who these companies would be so mean and cruel not to information all the Navajo miners, and the risk that they were taking, and $150,000 is a joke I have witness first hand the suffering my dad endured, and it will not bring back my dad. I’m just trying to get some proof and documentation on my dad, so I keep it as a personal reference, where do I need to go or who do I have to locate to get any type of documentation.

  5. 25 hours a day? Is that possible? If you are going to pick away the credibility of the area attempting to attract some industry to the area, then I will pick away your credibility. I hate people that jump on the liberal bandwagon just to make a name for themselves.

  6. I don’t think Karlsie the author is necessarily against any industry in this otherwise pristine region; perhaps just enterprises that are not especially cost-effective and quite likely hazardous. As it is this nation is running out of any kind of safe space to bury its nuclear waste produced by the numerous plants in among almost all states.

    And any fracking that occurs in those or contiguous states can quite possibly cause earthquakes which can lead to eventual radioactive leakage of buried waste and/or ruptures in plant rod containment vessels.

    And speaking as a legal and illegal anti-over immigration Democrat, one’s political and economic philosophy has very little to do with understanding and accepting the science and numbers highlighting the bi-partisan madness of this country’s environmental and energy policies.

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