Uranium. It’s been at the center of environmental disasters that span the globe and weapons of unimaginable destruction. As the United State’s relations with Russia grow cold yet again and tensions with North Korea are at all-time high, the world’s collective consciousness has again turned nuclear, wary of what may be. But for some, the mineral has been a boon, and as recently as the last decade, companies have tried to capitalize on uranium deposits right here in Oregon. Though time doesn’t heal all wounds and reminders of past mistakes are still fresh.
The year was 1952. A nuclear arms race between two of the world’s superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, was in full swing, ushering in an era of angst and paranoia across American soil. In an effort to bolster its stockpile of necessary raw materials, the Atomic Energy Commission turned its gaze to the arid, uranium-rich deserts of the West, kickstarting a mining rush unheard of since gold was discovered in the mid 1800’s.
Government subsidies offered $50 per ton of ore that contained more than .33 percent of uranium, and a $10,000 bonus was up for grabs if you hit the mother lode. Locals and out-of-town prospectors alike started digging up the region with mushroom clouds on their minds and dollar signs in their eyes.
Oregon wasn’t left out of the madness. The southeast corner of the state was sprinkled with A-metal, or atomic metal as it was known, causing Geiger counters (radiation detectors) to jump like antelope over a fence. Veins had been found in the Steens Mountain Wilderness and claims were marked at every whiff of the stuff.
Uranium mania in Oregon came to a boiling point in Klamath Falls in 1956. A man named Earl Sheridan, the heir to the town’s founder George Nurse, plopped down in the middle of Main Street with shotgun in hand, announcing his rights to excavate the profitable mineral he said lay beneath the street. In between shifts of gouging the pavement, Sheridan told a reporter with the Herald and News, “I intend to sink a shaft right here. If we have to go to the United States Supreme Court to uphold my claim, we’ll do it.” The adamant squatter stood fast despite a spell of appendicitis and confrontations with police, until his ownership was proven legally untrue, at which point his lawyer abandoned him and he was forced to vacate the intersection.
This tale of excitement followed by empty-handed disappointment echoes a common theme at the time. Though traces of uranium were prevalent, only two operations ever became commercially viable in Oregon—at the White King and Lucky Lass sites, 13 miles outside of Lakeview.
In 1958, a brand new $2.6 million processing mill was built, where Lakeview Mining Company could produce 1,400 tons of “yellow cake,” or refined uranium oxide, per week. In its heyday, the LMC held considerable power and influence in the area; it published a bi-monthly newspaper called The Ore Bucket and sponsored an American Legion youth baseball team.
The good fortune was unsustainable and miner strikes plagued the business. Once the federal government realized it had enough uranium to wipe all of its enemies off the map and produce a century’s worth of electrical energy with the leftovers, the funding vanished and mines were abandoned at an alarming rate.
The health and ecological consequences of the Cold War’s uranium rush were damaging. Unaware of the life-threatening effects of breathing in radioactive particulates, miners would often exhale on Geiger counters to see who could make the needle go higher. Groundwater became polluted with radon, arsenic and uranium, resulting in an enormous restoration undertaking.
Today, two tranquil ponds and a meadow are all that remain of White King and Lucky Lass, but it wasn’t an easy cleanup job. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency added them to their high priority, “Superfund” list in order to correctly dispose of the hulking piles of hazardous residue, improperly buried in 1976. Though the waste has since been minimized and contained, the area is still monitored to ensure the protection of nearby Auger Creek and is closed to the public.
Extraction efforts are being pursued to this day, the most significant being the “Aurora” deposit outside of McDermitt on the Nevada-Oregon border. However, vulnerable sage grouse habitat and the possibility of mercury leaching into the surroundings have so far been insurmountable roadblocks. The mining rights have changed hands frequently, but it seems that if any corporation hopes to cash in, their biggest hurdle may be the errors of a tainted history.