Naturita, Colo. — Six hundred feet into a sandstone mesa, only the pinhole light of Bob Starks's mining helmet pierces the blackness.
In the distance, the hiss from a compressed-air hose slaps off the cavern walls, while hard-hatted Terry (Butch) Kerns shoves fuses and caps into a handful of dynamite sticks.
''There's still a lot of uranium around here to clean up,'' Mr. Starks says. ''If the price would just stay up and the feds stay off our back, we could make a living.''
Butch Kerns and Bob Starks are still making it as uranium miners. But barely. As nuclear power threatens to become a dinosaur, many of the mines that feed these power-generating plants have slowed down. Among them are the dozens of mom-and-pop operations that burrow into the sandstone buttes and mesas of southwestern Colorado and neighboring Utah.
One still going is the Joe Dandy mine. Although dormant for years, the cubbyhole operation was recently resuscitated by Calvin Sanders, a 25-year veteran who figured there was enough ''cleanup'' ore left in Joe Dandy's stomach to bring a buck despite rock-bottom uranium prices.
The mine tunnels into a pinon-studded mesa whose walls are punctured with the remains of small mines - the Anna Mae, the Hummer, the Aztec, the Oversight. Some of them produced near-millionaires; others barely made it.
Most are silent now. They either ran out of high-grade ore or have become too expensive to operate at today's prices. But Kerns and Starks, who work the Joe Dandy for Calvin Sanders, are getting by. They are cleaning up the small ''pod and kidney'' deposits that others left behind.
''It's a tough way to make a buck,'' shrugs Starks, a uranium miner since he was 18. ''But a man has to do something.'' He has watched the operations graduate out of the pick-and-shovel days. Now the flaxen-colored ore is blasted loose, scooped up with front-end loaders, and hauled out in tractor-trailer rigs. But the mechanization has brought other problems: Cal Sanders figures it would take $100,000 to open up a small mine today.
The costs of keeping the Joe Dandy open are becoming prohibitive. The price of fuse has tripled in the last year, and the tab for ''prill,'' an explosive like rock salt, hasn't been far behind.
But what really bothers Butch and Bob is the web of federal regulations they have to contend with. Rules tailored for big coal mines in the East don't fit well here.
''For not having a timber in place, I could get a $138 citation,'' Bob grouses.
Bob thinks he made more than $20,000 last year. But the paychecks may become more spotty. The two miners scooped out about 400 tons of ore last month; this month they will be lucky to produce one-quarter of that. Yet after the Joe Dandy is empty, Butch and Bob will go on hunting for more.