Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of stories about Fort Lewis College students making a documentary about uranium mining in and around Durango.By Jonathan Romeo
Herald Staff Writer
It’s a little-known fact, but once upon a time, Durango offered year-round skiing. However, knowing what we know now, even the most extreme adrenaline junkies probably wouldn’t be up to hit these particular slopes.
The supposed year-round attraction was on a hill just south of town, covered with uranium tailings, which, oddly, has fallout dust similar in texture to snow, said local historian Duane Smith.
“That tailings pile was pretty hot (radioactive),” Smith said. “It was like dust. When the wind came up, it blew all over town. And it hurt tourism. Who wants to come to Durango when you could end up with a radioactive sickness?”
Uranium has a long-embedded history in Durango. In the 1940s, a smelter at the current site of the Durango Dog Park was used to refine uranium for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II.
The smelter ceased for good in 1963, but the radioactive waste continued to be part of Durango’s landscape. Most disconcerting, Smith said, was the tailings were routinely used as fill dirt in building foundations.
“There was a real concern what it might do,” Smith said.
Many projects over the years have sought to clean up this unsavory past. But a class at Fort Lewis College this semester seeks to look further into whether the past is truly buried.
Stacey Sotosky, an assistant professor who teaches Digital Video Production, said 16 students this year will take part in making a short documentary about Durango’s history with uranium and whether issues still linger.
Sotosky said the class is a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS, which in October will premiere a feature-length documentary about uranium issues throughout Colorado.
“I want them (the students) to walk away with the tools they need to get a job at a serious high-end level in broadcast television,” Sotosky said.
The partnership between FLC and Rocky Mountain PBS is part of a broader effort to bring more localized coverage of the Four Corners to Colorado’s Front Range through the station’s regional innovation center program. The Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media awarded a $5,000 grant to help with this effort.
Other Rocky Mountain PBS regional innovation centers are in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Denver. Their work is twofold: They teach students how to produce content and they generate local stories.
Bliss Bruen has worked since 2010 to connect Southwest Colorado to the Front Range. She has been a key player, spearheading the partnership to bring an innovation center here.
“If we have this, we can generate the stories that are unique to Southwest Colorado, which are really quite different than the Front Range,” Bruen said.
Students will be assisted not only by Sotosky, but also Carol Fleisher, an award-winning documentary maker based in Durango whose work has appeared on PBS, NBC, Discovery and National Geographic, to name a few.
“I want to help students learn how to tell the best story possible,” Fleisher said. “I’m excited, and the students really seem excited to have this opportunity.”
Mari Carpenter, a junior at FLC, said she took Sotosky’s class because of an interest in film and a desire to learn storytelling techniques.
She is also interested to learn more about uranium’s role in Durango.
“I’ve never really thought about it, but it’ll be good to bring it to light,” she said.
FLC senior Michelle Olson, better known as “Flower,” said she fell in love with making videos after an introduction to media class. She hopes this project broadens her ability to tell stories.
“I definitely knew (uranium tailings) were around the Dog Park,” she said, “but it’ll be interesting to see how it affects humans and animals.”
Last Thursday, the class dug through the archives at FLC’s Center for Southwest Studies, tasked with finding at least one bit of historical record that could be used for the film.
“It was really fantastic for everybody,” Sotosky said. “We’re learning that in that building and the archives, there are thousands of stories that could be told.”
The class will premiere its short documentary Oct. 17 at the Powerhouse Science Center.