Miners in Calamity Camp, which is located on historically Ute land, extracted uranium, vanadium, and radium from Calamity Mesa from 1916-1980. Uranium is found in several places around Colorado, but 77% of the state’s of uranium and vanadium is found in “numerous and relatively small mines in the Uravan mineral belt located in Mesa, Montrose, and San Miguel Counties” (Colorado Geological Survey). Colorado’s last uranium mine closed in 2005. Today, uranium is used in many industries, especially nuclear power generation. Historically, though, its use was primarily military. During WWI, molybdenum (“Molly B”), which was also mined in Colorado, was critical to the weapons manufacturing (primarily artillery guns and weapons requiring strengthened steel). When the Central Powers suffered a shortage of molybdenum, they turned to ferrouranium alloys as a substitute. Hence, uranium mining became an important part of the war effort. This use of uranium continued until WWII’s Manhattan Project, and later Cold War, which instead required significant quantities of uranium for fission research and nuclear weaponry (learn more). By the 1980s, however, demand for uranium was down and Calamity Camp became a ghost town.
The miners who lived in Calamity Camp lived harsh lives, and exposed themselves to significant dangers. They worked with heavy machinery and explosives, they breathed bad, dusty air, and although it wasn’t entirely known at the time, they were regularly exposed to radioactive materials. Not only during the work day was life hard: back at camp, there were minimal amenities. Minimal transportation infrastructure made it hard to access resources, and it is reported the camp did not have electricity until 1950.
Uranium mining touches on almost all aspects of society, from warfare, to economics, to health, to social discrimination, to justice. Looking at the impact of uranium extraction through the lenses of public health and environmental justice can offer a critical perspective on this broad topic. As a starter read, check out the 2019 AP article “Mining camp alive in memories of Navajo uranium victims” and go deeper with Brugge and Goble’s 2002 article, “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People,” And, you can dig into the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to learn how the Department of Justice is handling compensation for victims of the externalities of uranium mining.
In 2007, the BLM, in partnership with the Museum of Western Colorado and the Gateway Canyons Resort, worked to stabilize and protect some of the camp’s buildings and structures. Four years later, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By preserving Calamity Camp, we ensure future generations can continue to learn from the legacy of uranium mining activities in Colorado.
Today, the site is located near splendid Western Slope recreational opportunities, including Jeeping, hiking, mountain biking, and more. It is highly likely volunteers will get to enjoy the beautiful, yet fleeting “turning of the aspens” during this project. Sign up today!