Uranium Mining Boom Echoes in the Radioactive Valley of Ambrosia Lake

A SPECTACULARLY SPENT VALLEY NORTH of Grants, New Mexico, was once one of the largest uranium industry sites in the country. Now it is a haunting, debris-strewn landscape, with massive mounds of radioactive tailings. Though uranium was mined from sites all over the Southwest, half the uranium oxide in the country came from Grants area mines, and the Ambrosia Lake district was one of the most productive. The highest concentration of ore at Ambrosia Lake (just a name, no lake in the area) was mined from a four by seven mile part of the valley, which was completely undercut with layers of mine shafts. The only visible indication of what lies below are numerous vents emerging from the ground, which once expelled radon, diesel smoke, and other toxic gases that would accumulate in the mines while they were being worked.

1235 One of numerous exhaust vents that once expelled noxious fumes from the hundreds of miles of mine shafts below the surface of the Ambrosia Lake district. CLUI photoThe atomic era created a mining boom, rivaling that of the Gold Rush. The first boom took place in the 1950's when thousands of prospectors flocked to the southwest with Geiger counters, searching for deposits of "yellowcake," the richest form of uranium ore, spurred on by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which offered thousands of dollars in reward money to successful prospectors. In the 1960's major mining companies bought out much of the individual mines around Grants, and established huge complexes of open pits or subterranean tunnels. Four uranium mills were built in the area, operated by companies such as Kerr McGee, United Nuclear, and Anaconda.

At the industry's peak in the 1970's, thousands of people worked in the mines and mills in the valley. But the booms bottomed out in the late 1970's, as the public's enthusiasm about nuclear power diminished, and the Ambrosia Lake district turned from an economic asset, to a toxic liability. The era of closure and clean-up had begun, and continues to this day.

1236 The Quivera Company's Ambrosia Lake mill, the only mill left in the district, is adjacent to "the largest uranium tailings pile in the free world." CLUI photo
The only mill in the area that has not been torn down is the Quivera Mill, which employs 34 people. The mill still processes uranium, but in a manner fitting for a post-boom industry: conducting what is called "solution mining," the old underground mines of the valley, once full of miners, are now flooded with water to flush out some of the remaining uranium. Quivera is also involved in remediation of the region, especially in stabilizing the tailings pile next to the plant, said to be the largest uranium tailings pile in the free world. The company expects to keep the mill intact, even if they stop producing, in case uranium is needed again. Originally built by Kerr McGee, ownership of the mill was transferred in 1989 to the Rio Algom Company, of Toronto, when Kerr McGee sold off all of its uranium operations.

1237 Sign and carved, granite "headstone" at the Department of Energy's 196 acre Ambrosia Lake Tailings Pile, which is visible in the background. CLUI photo
After initial remediation by the mining companies, the Department of Energy (which, as the AEC, was largely responsible for creating the mad rush for uranium) becomes the owner of the uranium sites for long term monitoring and storage, as the sites are a radioactive hazard for thousands of years into the future. North of Grants, in the Ambrosia Lake region, several large piles are being prepared, including the mound at Quivera's mill. Across the highway, what is called the Ambrosia Lake Tailings Pile is already entombed in the standard casing of coarsely crushed stone, a sort of perpetual pyramidal monument to a short-lived and wild industry.