A proposed uranium processing mill in southwest Colorado has triggered a showdown between state and federal regulators
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — State health officials and federal nuclear regulators will powwow this week over the stalled application for a permit for a planned uranium mill in southwest Colorado, but the public apparently will be shut out of the process — despite a formal request for access by local government officials from Telluride and San Miguel County.
“The state has completely failed to conduct its review of the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in a fair, open and transparent process,” said Hilary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based conservation group that has challenged the Piñon Ridge license in a lawsuit.
The April 17 meeting has been set to discuss and review the state’s performance and implementation of the federal Atomic Energy Act. Community groups and environmental advocates challenging the permitting of the mill said the state failed its obligation to hold adequate formal public hearings during the permitting process and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in February agreed in a finding that could force Energy Fuels to start the application process from scratch.
Conservation and community groups in the region are concerned about potential long-term impacts associated with processing uranium and want the state to conduct a thorough hearing process to carefully weigh the best available science.
State officials reacted defensively to the NRC’s finding. Rather than addressing any of the substantive concerns raised by the federal agency, or even the environmental and public health concerns raised by conservation groups, the CDPHE focused on process, and pushed the NRC to retract or clarify its position on the state permitting process.
White said six conservation groups across the state, along with the town of Telluride and San Miguel County made a formal request to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. As of late Monday, the state agency hadn’t responded to the request. The meeting is being held as part of the NRC’s continuing oversight of Colorado’s implementation of the Atomic Energy Act through the Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Program (IMPEP).
“The NRC recently determined that the state’s review of the proposed mill was flawed and also determined that the state’s review procedures were deficient and need to be improved,” she said. “It seems very suspicious that, under these circumstances, the CDPHE continues to do everything it can to shut the public out.”
Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste, Inc., Western Colorado Congress, Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction, Paradox Valley Sustainability Association and Tallahassee Area Community also requested that the April 17 meeting be opened to public observation. Under an agreement with the NRC, the state retains the discretion to invite the public.
“We have simply requested the right to listen and observe at this meeting,” said Sharyn Cunningham, co-chair of CCAT, the citizens group fighting for the cleanup of the contaminated Cotter Mill in Cañon City. “But, as we have been experiencing for many years, we are excluded from the process more often than not. We feel it is in the best interests of the public to have a better understanding of the state’s management of uranium sites and facilities in order to ultimately ensure that our health and our homes are protected. Apparently the state does not agree.”
At the April 17 meeting, NRC and CDPHE officials are expected to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Colorado’s implementation of federal requirements to oversee nuclear and radioactive facilities within its borders as well as the state’s procedure for licensing the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, the first facility of its kind to be approved in three decades.
“The CDPHE has a troubling record managing uranium mills in this state, and not once has a mill operated here without problems for communities and the environment,” according to Travis Stills, attorney for SMA and CCAT. “To date, the state’s mismanagement of these radioactive sites has already cost us over $1 billion in cleanup. It is time for the state to open up this process, seriously address the existing problems, and start preventing an unrestrained industry from polluting sites across Colorado.”
The state health department issued its final permit for the uranium mill in Jan. 2011. The decision was challenged in state district court by the Sheep Mountain Alliance and by the towns of Telluride and Ophir.