This documentary is about a dispute that erupted in Western Colorado between a small town and an environmental group.
The town of Naturita (pronounced Natter-EEta) invites a mining company, Energy Fuels Corporation, to come to town and start a uranium mine. A group called Sheep Mountain Alliance, whose members live downstream of the proposed mine, sue to stop it from happening.
As you can guess, a lot of people have a lot to say in the conflict. Director Suzan Beraza, whose film Bag It was a local film-festival favorite listens to them all.
What They Say
There had been uranium mining in the area in the past (there was even a Uranium Drive-In movie theater). One former miner says he had been accidentally sprayed with “nearly pure uranium” and is now a double amputee, with mangled fingers. He says given the chance he would not do it again, and he doesn’t think anyone else should, either; it’s too dangerous.
A self-described cowgirl pushing 80 says when the mines were running, those were the golden years, and they made her family’s success possible.
There are working-age people in Naturita who don’t want to leave and who feel a mining operation is their last, best chance for economic hope. We meet Ayngel and Ed who try to make ends meet doing odd jobs. Angel is able to sell some writing, but they’d like something more stable and productive in their community.
Jennifer is the movie’s face of Sheep Mountain Alliance based in Telluride. They worry about long-term damage to the water and the land that could come from a uranium mine. They point to a once-thriving mining town called Uravan, now abandoned and closed to human access as a polluted Superfund site.
But the real conflict, simmering just below the surface and sometimes bubbling above, is one of class resentment.
If you’ve ever tried to attend the Telluride Film Festival or ski there in the winter, you know just how expensive real estate is. It seems that only the well-to-do can afford to live there. I don’t think it is overstating things to say that when a group from Telluride tells blue-collar, red-state, economically depressed Naturita that it can’t have the one industry that’s offered to move in, deep-seated political and social feelings come out.
The most blunt statement comes from a man we see tending tomatoes. He says that he doesn’t like the rich folks from Telluride who are always driving to protests in their Mercedes’. But there are more nuanced versions of the same resentment as well. Tami, the mayor of Naturita would like to tell the people of Telluride “Come down and understand us, don’t just try to save us.” Someone at a town hall meeting says “we are not stupid; we know the risks; we want [the mine] anyway.” Ayngel from Naturita meets Jennifer from Sheep Mountain Alliance on-camera. She says that through the five years of their political fight, nobody from Telluride, Sheep Mountain Alliance, nor anywhere else has brought any jobs to the area — no alternatives. All anyone has done is to say no.
Simplifying for the Story
Somehow I doubt that Uranium Drive-In has captured the actual political battle, which took place over at least five years and may still be underway. Surely not everybody in Naturita wants a uranium mine in their back yard, and not everybody in Telluride is a rich Mercedes-driving NIMBYist. Nevertheless, Uranium Drive-In seems to have captured the spirit of the fight — this one and probably many other similar fights taking place all across America.
After an hour I began to feel informed enough to have an opinion. My own take is that the people who wanted the mine were probably putting too much trust in a corporation — not to pollute, not to exploit, and to provide and maintain transparency. But I wish some industry would come and make use of the many people who desperately want to work.
Amazingly, Beraza is able to find a hopeful ending for Uranium Drive-In. It’s a small thing — it’s not as satisfying as Naturita winning the world’s cleanest and safest uranium mine — but it’s hopeful, local, and personal. Given the animosity that had gone before, any silver lining was likely to shine brightly on Uranium Drive-In.