The Uravan Mineral Belt, which stretches across San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa counties in southwestern Colorado, was once a highly productive area for uranium and vanadium, fueling an industry that provided livelihoods to residents of towns like Nucla, Naturita, Gateway and Uravan.
The industry went bust decades ago, and today, rural West End communities are struggling with a lack of jobs and high unemployment. Uravan was declared a Superfund site, and when the mining industry dried up in the region, nothing ever successfully replaced it.
And when Canadian company Energy Fuels Inc. proposed building a uranium mill in Paradox Valley a few years ago, it was met by support by many residents of the West End who were energized by the promise of jobs in what would be the first conventional mill constructed in the United States in 30 years.
But in the eastern part of San Miguel County, the mill proposal stirred up fierce opposition among residents who fear it will do irreparable harm to the health of the region’s environment, denizens and economy.
Telluride filmmaker Suzan Beraza stepped into the thorny issue early on with a film crew, chronicling the lives affected by it for nearly three years as the proposal was debated and delayed by hearings, lawsuits, market forces and appeals.
Her new film, “Uranium Drive-In,” is a beautiful, slow-paced piece about hardscrabble communities struggling to survive, the hope that industry can bring, the risks of uranium contamination, nostalgia for the past and the connection to place.
It’s easy to be an environmentalist when you have a comfortable life, she said, but when you are struggling feed your children, priorities can change.
Beraza said making the film opened up compassion in her for both sides of the divide. And that’s what she hopes it will do for the audience.
“That’s the goal of the film, raising compassion on both sides,” she said.
Beraza was drawn into the story by her own curiosity, and early on decided not to make an activist film. She didn’t want to make a film about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, either. (“It’s been done,” she said.) As she got to know some of the people who turned into major characters in the film, she said, she decided to let them tell their own stories so that the audience could make up its mind about the issue.
On the other hand, the corporations that instigate these divisions aren’t known for their compassion. Shouldn’t the experience of compassion be a beginning, not an end? If a “comfortable life” is what makes environmentalism possible, then doesn’t environmentalism have to take on economic issues? Why should some people be entitled to worrying about the environment and their health while others can’t afford to worry about their health?