The road east to this dying ranch town of 18 people passes the endless subdivisions of the Denver metropolitan area. Then the interstate turns, and it is almost all rolling prairie.

That empty space is what enticed various companies to buy up the land around Last Chance and use it to dump Denver's sewage and hazardous waste. But now one of those dumps -- a facility that residents battled for years -- wants permission to accept radioactive waste.

The ranchers and farmers who have watched their town slowly depopulate are mobilizing for what they see as Last Chance's last stand.

"If we become a dumping area for the whole United States, we're done for," said rancher Pam Whelden, 61. "Leroy's parents homesteaded this place almost 100 years ago, and now we're thinking, do we want to stay here?"

The town is centered on a stop sign at the junction of U.S. 36 and Colorado 71, about 70 miles outside Denver. Its name comes from its reputation as the last chance to buy gas before Kansas.

Problem is, the two gas stations at the intersection closed long ago. So has the one restaurant -- a hamburger and ice cream stand. The only inhabited building is the local Methodist church, whose minister, James Calhoun, lives next door.

"What we want here is some symbols of community and economic development," Calhoun said, "and what we're getting here is just what we don't want."

Massachusetts-based Clean Harbors Inc. has asked the state to allow it to store low-grade radioactive waste at the 250-acre hazardous waste facility, and Colorado officials have indicated that they will approve the request soon.

Company officials say they would not store waste from nuclear power plants or other more potent radiation. Instead, they plan to use the facility to house natural-occurring radiation taken from the water systems that serve Denver and its suburbs.

They also want to store old uranium mine tailings and other radioactive material that were used to line Denver's streets in the early 20th century, but now must be moved.

"It's a good fit," said Phillip Retallick, a Clean Harbors vice president. "It's sparsely populated, and the geology is perfect for this." He said the 4,000 feet of solid shale beneath the landfill would prevent any radioactive matter from escaping.

To the ranchers struggling to hang on, the idea of taking more of the waste from the booming suburbs is an insult.

"It's a rural versus urban problem," said Gerald Schreiber, another local rancher. "They want all the growth, all the good things, and we get all the . . . sewage."

Or, as Whelden put it: "It's an invasion. It's the same as you and I driving to Denver and digging a hole and setting up an outhouse."

That is how Whelden felt in 1983, when Browning-Ferris Industries bought 1,200 acres south of her ranch. Before she and her neighbors knew it, the company had applied for a permit to build a hazardous waste storage facility covering 250 acres.

Last Chance's ranchers teamed up with surrounding farmers and -- through bake sales and a tractor raffle -- raised $250,000 to fight the landfill. They joined up with other, unlikely allies. Whelden remembers Greenpeace activists dressed in "worm-like" costumes accompanying them on one lobbying trip in the state capitol and dumping sludge on the ground to symbolize toxic waste.

It was all for naught. Adams County granted the permit to Browning-Ferris. The ranchers sued and received some concessions, but could not stop the project.

The permit, however, expressly forbade radioactive waste. Over the decades, ownership of the site has changed hands five times, and it now resides with Clean Harbors, which says it does not understand why the new, low-grade radioactive waste is such an issue.

"The waste that we're anticipating taking is less toxic than the hazardous waste we've been taking there for years," Retallick said.

This time, alongside the ranchers, Adams County is objecting to the new waste, saying it has long wanted to keep radioactive material out of Last Chance. "We've seen nothing that would cause us to change the original conditions we've imposed," said Howard Kenison, the attorney hired by the county to fight the proposal.

The ranchers are taking a long view, though. Schreiber imagined that, in 50 years scientists will conclude that waste it once thought was safe to store near homes will have to be moved again.

"And they're going to say: 'Those dummies, why did they let this happen?' "