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In Naturita, uranium bust thumps hard

By Scott Armstrong / February 16, 1982

Naturita, Colo.

The Yellow Rock Cafe, a local watering hole and nerve center, acts as a weather vane for the uranium industry in these parts.

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When the mines are booming, there often aren't enough booths to go around for the coverall-clad patrons. But when the industry slumps, as it is now, there's no shortage of seats at the local haunt, named for the uranium ore in the surrounding hills.

''This has been a wonderful place for a small miner to make a buck,'' says Calvin Sanders, a uranium miner for 25 years, between bites of a Mexican lunch. ''But now there just isn't any work. It isn't a desperate situation yet - but it's going to get that way.''

Naturita is in the heart of uranium country, and the once-booming industry, stymied by low ore prices and uncertainty over the future of nuclear power, is plunging toward a new nadir.

Exploration for new lodes of the honeyed ore is down. And the production of yellowcake, natural processed uranium, has fallen off a cliff in some parts of the country. The slowdown has put thousands of people out of work throughout the Mountain West, where more than 90 percent of the nation's ore lies.

At last count, 8,000 of the industry's 22,000 workers were idle. Socked hardest have been New Mexico and Wyoming, the country's two kingpin suppliers. But a soup-line gloom has also spread over parts of southwestern Colorado, the birthplace of uranium mining in the United States.

The layoffs underline that Colorado's economy - despite being robust from high-technology and energy-related growth - has a soft side. Some hard-bitten residents, mindful of the boom-bust cycles connected with gold and silver in the past and more recently with uranium, are beginning to ask: Will oil shale be next?

In tiny Naturita, a one-truck-stop town near the Colorado-Utah border, most of the residents' paychecks are tied in one way or another to uranium. The area's dusty, salmon-colored buttes and canyons are laced with cubbyhole-size mines that have produced financial grubstakes for some families for generations.

A few of the idled workers are working on ranches to make ends meet. Others have left the area altogether. Since September 1980, 140 students have been pulled out of the area's main school, leaving only 525 pupils. The number of post office boxes in Naturita (pop. 820) has dropped 30 percent in just over a year.

In nearby Nucla, the sign on the edge of town says simply, ''Welcome to Nucla - home of 1,000 friendly people and one grouch.'' But today, arguably, others may be tempted to be disgruntled as well.

Jose Salazar has been working uranium mines in the area since the 1950s. ''In the 26 years I've lived in the area, this is the only time I've been out of a job,'' he says. ''This is the first time I've seen it like this.''

At the nearby headquarters for the Western Small Miners' Association, situated in an old gas station, Mike Moore, its president, relaxes in a swivel chair. In five months he has cut the number of workers at his uranium mine from eight to four. ''In a few months I may have to let a couple of more go,'' says Mr. Moore.''I've got guys coming up to me and asking if they can work for $5 an hour. Usually they get $8 to $11.''

In neighboring Uravan, Union Carbide Corporation has its uranium processing mill running near capacity. But company officials are unsure about how long it will stay up. Half the mill's 180 people were laid off for six months last year - and many local people expect it to go down again shortly.