Federal regulators say Colorado health officials botched licensing and hearing process for proposed uranium mill

Feds say hearings needed on proposed uranium mill in SW Colorado.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls for public hearings on SW Colorado project

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal regulators said last week that Colorado public health officials failed to provide for adequate public comment during the early permitting and licensing stages for the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill in southwestern Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was not able to respond to questions about the licensing and hearing process Tuesday afternoon. The CDPHE issued a final radioactive materials license for the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill on Jan. 5, 2011

The finding by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could force Energy Fuels to start the application process from scratch.

“How we read it is, it’s back to square one. There are some pretty clear requirements in this process,” said Travis Stills, with Durango-based Energy & Conservation Law. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment opened itself up to scrutiny by failing to meet those public hearing requirements, Stills said.

“They need to let the public come in and raise the questions, put the technical claims in the application to the test,” he said. “It’s their burden, not just as a legal matter, but as a practical matter, to show they can do it safely, to where it won’t impact water quality,” he said, adding that there are multiple concerns about environmental impacts that have not been closely looked at.

“The air quality impacts have been repeatedly glossed over, and they never did do any serious analysis of what it could mean for deer and elk in the area,” Stills said. “The CDPHE just kind of brushed away the public concerns,” he said, adding that the CDPHE’s Radioactive Materials Licensing Department has a questionable history of managing radioactive sites. All the documents relating to the proposed Piñon Ridge mill are online at this state website.

In its March 6 letter to attorney Jeff Parsons, the NRC said, “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).”

The letter goes on to say that the CDPHE has agreed to modify its regulations to clarify public hearing requirements and “will work with Energy Fuels to provide an opportunity for a public hearing regarding the issuance of the new license” for the mill.

Sheep Mountain Alliance director Hilary White said her organization is still evaluating the documents from the NRC and trying to determine whether Energy Fuels must re-apply for a permit. Whether the company has the resources to do that is still a big question mark, she said.

The Sheep Mountain Alliance challenged the license application in court in a case that’s still pending. White said the organization asked the court to remand the licensing back to the state.

“We asked them to conduct a more complete process according to the law,” she said. “If they had even considered the concerns we submitted, the application would have been sent back to Energy Fuels as incomplete,” she said, referring to numerous comments and issues raised by scientists, residents of the area and local community officials.

“After the environmental review was conducted and the preliminary license was issued members of the public were denied open and careful scrutiny of the applicant’s assertions in the federally required proceeding,” she said. “Since the mill was first proposed in 2007, people in our region have been requesting a full and complete review of this project. We are still waiting for it.”

“Conducting a thorough public review is a fundamental obligation that Colorado must meet when implementing federal law as an Agreement State,” said Parsons, who represents Sheep Mountain Alliance from the Western Mining Action Project in Lyons, Colo.
“The NRC has confirmed that CDPHE failed to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to review the Energy Fuels mill permit,” he said. “We need new and objective eyes to look at this mill proposal.
“NRC rarely comes down so clearly and explicitly stating that a state’s public review process was flawed,” he said. “The CDPHE ignored our concerns over this; they went ahead and issued the mill license. The NRC has irrefutably substantiated our concerns.”
During the review process, community members across the Western Slope requested that the CDPHE take into consideration the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, proposed for the rural Paradox Valley in western Montrose County.
Sheep Mountain Alliance submitted expert technical reports addressing the impacts of radioactive tailings and waste storage, impacts to the Paradox Valley and the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, wildlife, toxic air emissions, as well as negative socioeconomic impacts to communities across Southwest Colorado.
“If CDPHE had conducted a valid and thorough review of the Piñon Ridge Mill as proposed, the license should not have been granted,” said White. “We needed a fair and complete hearing to gain a true understanding of what the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill would mean to our region.”



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