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Colorado: Hearing on controversial uranium mill starts; conservation groups get formal party status

Many southwest Colorado residents are saying no thanks to uranium mining and milling in their region.

Hearing starts Oct. 15 for what would be the country’s first new uranium mill in 30 years

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After a start-stop permitting procedure for a proposed uranium mill in southwestern Colorado was marred by inadequate public hearings, state officials will once again take input in formal proceedings starting Oct. 15.

This time, a judge has given three conservation groups formal standing for the hearings, which means that environmental advocates will be able to introduce evidence, testify and cross-examine witnesses.

The Piñon Ridge mill is proposed for the Paradox Valley, in southwestern Colorado near the Dolores River. The three groups — Rocky Mountain Wild, Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity — will join the towns of Telluride, Ophir, and San Miguel County in voicing concerns about the proposed mill’s threats to air, water, wildlife and tourism.

State regulators initially gave the mill a green light, but in June 2012, a judge overturned the approval because the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment deprived the public of its right to formal hearings, according to Hilary White, of the Sheep Mountain Alliance.

After the Sheep Mountain Alliance sued the state, federal regulators confirmed that the state didn’t follow its own rules for hearings. In a March 6 letter, federal regulators wrote:

“The NRC has substantiated your concern that the CDPHE did not provide an opportunity for a public hearing or notice for public comment on the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill proposed license … the NRC staff does not believe that the licensing of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill provided the public with an opportunity for comment or an opportunity for a public hearing (as required by federal law).”

“Our goal remains to protect the clean air and water of southwestern Colorado and ultimately the Colorado River,” White said.

The upcoming proceedings will give towns, counties, scientists, conservation groups and the public a chance to challenge the application and make sure that all public health, safety and environmental concerns are addressed.

Based on the promise of jobs, there is some support for the mill among residents of some of the hardscrabble towns in the region, but conservation groups and tourism-dependent communities are dead-set against the mill.

Along with health and environmental concerns, there are fundamental question about the economics of uranium mining, as the mill proposal is seen as a speculative play based on as-yet undeveloped uranium resources.

The battle over the mill is symbolic of the larger struggle in the region, as energy companies look to make every play they can, while conservation advocates strive to protect pristine lands.

In January the Obama administration protected 1 million acres around Grand Canyon from new mining, and in October 2011 a federal judge halted the Department of Energy’s 42-square-mile uranium-leasing program in southwestern Colorado — but the tide could turn in the other direction if GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins the presidential election.

“This uranium mill and associated mining threaten a magnificent part of Colorado, many rare and imperiled species, and could result in contamination that will pollute our natural resources,” said Matt Sandler, a staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The inadequate environmental analysis supporting this uranium mill development could turn a bad idea into an environmental disaster.”

The Piñon Ridge mill, proposed by the Canadian company Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. could process both uranium waste products and newly mined uranium ore from the company’s uranium mines in Colorado, Utah and northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon. The milling and associated mining threatens air, land, water and wildlife throughout the region with radiological and other toxic contamination.

The region already suffers from a legacy of uranium pollution in contaminated aquifers, lakes, rivers, hundreds of abandoned mines and several Superfund sites.

“We welcome this public hearing as an opportunity to pit real science against the incomplete application and questionable claims from an industry which has a deplorable track record of both environmental destruction and disregard for public health,” said White.

“The Four Corners region already suffers from a deadly legacy of uranium pollution,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The uranium industry and public agencies need to focus on cleaning up that poisonous mess instead of causing more pollution with new uranium development.”

Uranium mining and milling will deplete Colorado River basin water and threaten to pollute rivers with uranium, selenium, ammonia, arsenic, molybdenum, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, vanadium and zinc. Selenium and arsenic contamination in the Colorado River basin from abandoned uranium-mining operations have been implicated in the decline of four endangered Colorado River fish species and may be hampering their recovery.

Wildlife groups are concerned that the mill and related mining operations will hurt threatened and endangered species, including migratory birds, bald and golden eagles, bats and deer.

Energy Fuels gained control of the majority of the Colorado Plateau’s uranium infrastructure this summer when it assumed ownership of Denison Mines’ Arizona and Utah mines and its uranium mill in Blanding, Utah — the only operating uranium mill in the country. The Piñon Ridge mill would become the nation’s second.

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