Busting the boom
Citizens and conservationists challenge uranium ‘renaissance’

SideStory: Digging in the dirt: BLM opens mine expansion to public comment


A remnant of the last boom, the Durango Smelter uranium mill tailings impoundment, stands watch in Ridges Basin this week. With more than 10,000 new claims for uranium mines staked last year in Colorado, a second boom is currently in full swing. However, concerned citizens and conservationists are beginning to rise to the challenge./Photo David Halterman

by Will Sands

Southwest Colorado is once again abuzz with uranium prospectors. Driven by high prices and encouragement from the Department of Energy, a second uranium boom has steadily taken shape in the region in recent years. However, the toxic legacy of the Cold War uranium boom remains, and opposition to the resurgence is gaining momentum. A new generation of activists is now questioning the radioactive rush and how it will impact human and environmental health.

The Southwest’s first uranium boom arrived in the 1950s along with the beginning of the Cold War. At that time, prospectors with mining claims and Geiger counters in hand descended en masse on Colorado’s Western Slope. Many walked away with fortunes, but they also left a legacy of mine waste and radioactive tailings in their wake.

Prospectors and mining companies are once again eyeing the desert of the Dolores River drainage, filing 10,730 new mining claims in Colorado last year alone. They got a big nudge last July when the Department of Energy announced its new Uranium Leasing Program. The decision more than triples the land in Southwest Colorado available to uranium miners by authorizing up to 38 new mines in a 42-square-mile radius in the vicinity of the Dolores River. The agency anticipated that these leases would supply 2 million pounds of uranium per year.

“There is a lot of momentum for mining,” Tracy Plessinger, DOE project manager, said when the program was announced. “We’ve been getting numerous calls from the industry during the past year. I would bet we get interest on every one of these lease tracts.”

The DOE decision has also drawn interest from the conservation community. A coalition of groups recently filed suit and challenged the Uranium Leasing Program in court. The action alleges that the agency failed to adequately evaluate threats to soil, water and habitat as required by federal law.

Brian Farnsworth, of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, noted, “The Department of Energy must thoroughly consider all of the consequences of vastly expanding its uranium leasing and mining program in western Colorado. The federal government cannot blindly stumble along with this proposal, which could permanently and irretrievably contaminate precious water, soil and wildlife habitat.”

The Dolores River area is the epicenter of Colorado’s uranium boom, which makes careful environmental consideration and mitigation of impacts crucial, according to the coalition. Megan Mueller, of the Center for Native Ecosystems, has been carefully studying the impacts of the last uranium boom on the Dolores and Colorado River ecosystems. Her findings indicate that selenium – a uranium mining contaminant – has affected the reproduction of the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, and humpback and bonytail chubs, all of which are endangered species. The contaminants are also likely to bio-accumulate and impact species higher on the food chain like river otters and bald eagles. Additionally, toxins are eventually flowing into the Colorado River, which serves as a drinking water source for more than 25 million people.

“The Department of Energy shouldn’t gamble with the future of Colorado communities, rivers, mountains and wildlife by rushing to approve such a large number of new uranium mines – certainly without requiring adequate protections to prevent pollution,” Mueller said.

Travis Stills, of the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center, noted that the Uranium Leasing Program is setting a disturbing precedent – paving the way for new mines long before the remnants of the last boom have been cleaned up.

“The real question is what actual steps will be taken to clean-up the half-century of toxic waste that’s accumulated in the West,” he said. “Then what are we going to do about the new round of problems this mini-boom has created.”

In addition to the potential for 38 new mines in the vicinity of the Dolores River, a new mill to enrich the ore has been proposed for the Paradox Valley. Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian-based uranium and vanadium mining company, is planning the construction of the nation’s first uranium mill in 25 years on a parcel not far from Durango. The mill would be sited on 1,000 acres of privately owned land north of Dove Creek in Paradox Valley, halfway between the Dolores and San Miguel rivers. Earlier this year, the company applied for expedited approval of the mill from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“We are convinced that with the talent and experience we have assembled for this project, our mill will meet or exceed our goals to reach production on schedule and budget,” George Glasier, Energy Fuel’s president and CEO, said at the time.

The public and opposition groups are disputing Glasier’s claims, however. Kathy Cooney, a Moab resident and Paradox Valley property owner, recently took a hard look at Energy Fuels’ plans. At the core was the export of much of the locally mined and milled ore to Canada, a direct violation of the Atomic Energy Act.

“Energy Fuels would be making the profit, but they would leave the mess behind for us,” Cooney said. “Then they would go and sell the uranium to whomever and much of it would be leaving the country.”

Cooney found “six pages of unanswered loopholes” in Energy Fuels’ special use permit application. She then contacted the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Secretary of Energy’s office with her concerns. The outcome was disappointing.

“Even though these agencies are all intertwined, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” Cooney said. “We think the government is watching out for us, but there are so many things to be concerned about.”

Living in Moab, Cooney knows this firsthand. The legacy of the Atlas Uranium Mill is 16 million tons of uranium tailings still resting on the banks of the Colorado River just outside the town. The tailings pile has been shown to contaminate the Colorado with uranium, ammonia and other toxins and will eventually cost taxpayers more than $1 billion to clean up. Stills said he and others hope to avoid a similar kind of catastrophe on the Dolores.

“There have been a lot of us watching the attempt to restart the industry for a long time, he said. “As a result, there’s a lot more oversight now and people monitoring the on-the-ground conditions. We are making progress. Hopefully the bust won’t come in such a way as to leave these kinds of problems behind again.”

 

 

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