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Former Residents Picnic At Colorado Superfund Site

An empty field is all that remains of Uravan after cleanup wrapped in 2007.
An empty field is all that remains of Uravan after cleanup wrapped in 2007.

On a late summer day in Uravan, Colo., a few dozen people gather under trees and canopies, dishing up pulled pork and baked beans. But the surroundings are hardly the lush setting of a typical picnic.

"The things that happened here were very important," says Jane Thompson, who helps organize this annual reunion for former residents of a town that's been razed. "And even though the town is gone, we feel like ... the history of those people need[s] to be kept."

The famed chemist Marie Curie once traveled all the way to this spot for a gram of radium. Later, Uravan supplied uranium for nuclear weapons produced for the Manhattan Project and during the Cold War.

Larry Cooper, 91, worked the mines and mill in Uravan for 28 years.
Dan Boyce / NPR
Larry Cooper, 91, worked the mines and mill in Uravan for 28 years.

In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency declared this mining town a Superfund site, too toxic for humans. It ordered the mining company to clear out everything and bury the radioactive chemicals and heavy metals that had been processed into so-called yellowcake uranium ore.

"I didn't know it was dangerous," says 91-year-old Larry Cooper, sitting in a camping chair and breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. He worked in the mill and mines around Uravan starting in the 1950s. "I got cancer, I lost half of my lung on the right side."

The EPA declared the clean-up of Uravan complete in 2008, after two decades of work. But it's keeping this empty field on its National Priority Superfund List, saying it needs further investigation and study.

Thompson says she figures the federal government will be involved in Uravan forever. But she wants to keep having these annual reunion picnics, where the real star of the show is the dessert.

The star of the picnic is a brightly decorated yellow cake, made in homage to yellowcake uranium ore and the the nearby neon yellow signs declaring the area radioactive.
Dan Boyce / NPR
The star of the picnic is a brightly decorated yellow cake, made in homage to yellowcake uranium ore and the the nearby neon yellow signs declaring the area radioactive.

"I want you all to make sure you get over here and get a picture of yourself with the yellow cake!" she tells the crowd.

It's an actual yellow cake, frosted in bright yellow and black radioactive symbols. Uravan residents may have lost their town, but not their sense of humor.

Dan Boyce is a Colorado-based reporter for Inside Energy , a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. A version of this story appears on the Inside Energy website.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 6, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio, as in a previous Web version, Marie Curie is referred to as a famed French chemist. While Curie was a French citizen, she was born in what is now Poland and according to the Nobel Prize committee "never lost her sense of Polish identity."