New uranium boom draws lawsuit

Concern about the Four Corners uranium resurgence turned to action last week. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust have filed a lawsuit challenging the approval of up to 39 new uranium drilling sites within only a few miles of Grand Canyon National Park.

Last December, the Kaibab National Forest granted British firm VANE Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on national forest lands along the park’s southern boundary. It is the first of five such projects slated for the area.

The suit claims that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Administrative Procedures Act and Appeals Reform Act when it approved the uranium exploration using a “categorical exclusion,” the least rigorous analysis. 

“Grand Canyon simply isn’t the place for uranium development,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our national treasures deserve better than the calamity of an adjacent industrial zone.”  

The lawsuit follows a letter sent by the same groups outlining legal problems with the approval and requesting that the Forest Service withdraw its decision. The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium development under the 1872 Mining Law. But the groups argue that the mining law does not override the agency’s obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to carry out in-depth public and environmental reviews of such proposals.

“The mining law doesn’t negate the Forest Service’s duty to conduct detailed environmental and public reviews for new uranium development — and the Grand Canyon deserves at least that much,” said Sandy Bahr of Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.  

Fueled by a fifteen-fold increase in uranium prices during the last eight years, planned uranium development has increased enormously throughout and on federal lands south of the Grand Canyon. That land is facing 1,600 uranium claims, five uranium exploration projects and the possible opening of one mine. 

“Some places should be off-limits to noise, heavy equipment traffic, drilling and potential contamination from uranium exploration and drilling; the rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places,” said Dave Gowdey from Grand Canyon Trust. “Congress should act now to protect the park and its surrounding public lands.”

9-R to continue early release

Local students and parents will continue to enjoy early Friday release in the 2008-09 school year. Durango School District 9-R announced it will continue the early release pilot program next year in order to give teachers time for further career development in what are called “Professional Learning Communities.”

“Teachers are using their PLC time wisely to improve curriculum and instructional practices,” Superintendent Mary Barter said. “Anecdotal evidence from surveys and teacher comments indicates the work is having a positive impact on student learning.”

The district changed this year’s school calendar to dismiss students from 60 to 90 minutes earlier on Friday afternoons to give teachers time to work in Professional Learning Communities. In addition, middle school and high school classes started the school year two days earlier than elementary classes to ensure that students received the instructional time mandated by state law.

The Professional Learning Communities model is a research-based, proven strategy to improve student achievement, where teachers meet weekly to work in collaborative teams to improve instruction and student learning. Prior to the adoption of Professional Learning Communities last year, teachers rarely had the time or opportunity to work or discuss issues with teachers outside their grade level or department.

Families have also adjusted well to the Friday early release, said Administrator for Special Programs Libby Culver. Many families enjoy the extra time with their children and the ability to begin weekend activities a little earlier. And some teachers have noticed that the kids like Friday early release, too. “I have noticed that the students really love having a shorter day on Fridays,” wrote one teacher. “They are energized and excited rather than drained at the end of the week.”

Cause of Main Ave. fire pinpointed

Faulty duct work has been pinpointed as the culprit in last month’s devastating downtown fire. According to Durango Fire and Rescue Authority Fire Marshal Tom Kaufman, the Feb. 22

blaze started in a hood over the wood-fired grill and deep fat fryer in Season’s Restaurant, in the 700 block of Main Avenue. Although the hood’s fire-suppression system kicked in, it was too little too late. A duct used to vent the grease-laden vapors from the restaurant was installed too close to combustible paneling within a nearby wall. It is believed the paneling was ignited either by radiant heat from the uninsulated duct or by flames from a poorly welded seam in the duct. From there, the fire quickly spread to the attic that adjoins Season and Half-price Tees, as well as the attic over Le Rendezvous.

Although there were no codes in place at the time the buildings were constructed, the duct system did violate the city’s 1991 “Uniform Mechanical Code.” According to the code, such ducts must be installed at least 18 inches from flammable materials. The Seasons duct was installed six inches from combustible paneling.

The value of the buildings and lost contents is estimated at $4.5 million. Actual numbers will not be released until final settlement with building and business owners’ insurance companies.

The cause of the explosion that took the roof off of Le Rendezvous, injuring several firefighters, is still under investigation. DFRA is performing an internal investigation as is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The results of the NIOSH study will not be known for several months.

Fines upped for illegal snowmobiling

Snowmobilers ignoring wilderness signs may find it hard to outrun the long arm of the law. The U.S. Forest Service recently increased fines for illegally operating motor vehicles within a designated wilderness area from $75 to up to $500.

Snowmobiles, along with other means of motorized and mechanical travel, are not allowed within designated wilderness. Congress set these areas aside in the Wilderness Act of 1964 as an escape from sights and sounds of the modern world.

The new fines should be of particular interest to area renegade sledders. According to the San Juan National Forest, snowmobile tracks have recently been observed leading into the Weminuche Wilderness in several areas, including north of Snowdon Peak, Middle Mountain, Endlich Mesa and on the Continental Divide south of Stony Pass. As a result, the Forest Service has beefed up patrols in these areas. For information or details, call for San Juan Public Lands Center at 247-4874.

DNF saying goodbye to plastic

Starting in mid-May, shoppers at Durango Natural Foods will no longer be faced with the needless grocery store dilemma of paper or plastic. That’s because the member-owned store is phasing out the use of plastic grocery bags, which have come under increased scrutiny as of late.

“DNF has been paying attention to the national and international news that many chain stores, co-ops, cities and even countries are banning or placing significant taxes on plastic bag use,” said Minna Jain, of Durango Natural Foods. “Many of our shoppers have asked us to step up to the forefront of this issue and offer them more options than simply ‘paper or plastic.’”  

According to Jain, about 14 million trees are used annually to make paper bags for Americans. Likewise, it takes 12 million barrels of oil to make a year’s worth of plastic bags. As a result, the store is phasing out plastic bags and asking shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

“Deciding whether to use paper or plastic at a grocery store can make you feel like you’re caught between a paper mill and a petrochemical plant,” said Jain. “This environmental dilemma has a fairly easy solution – BYOB – ‘bring your own bag.’”

To make the switch easy for shoppers, Jain said beginning in April, customers can “borrow” a cloth tote for a deposit of $2.22. The money will be returned when the bag is. DNF also will be selling sturdy, washable totes for 99 cents as well as string cotton bags and heavier canvas bags made of recycled plastic bottles and recycled cotton.

Jain suggests making a small investment in reusable bags and to keep them in one’s home, car, and/or office. Seek bags that are sturdy and roomy enough to haul groceries. She noted that string cotton bags are also a good choice for everyday use because they expand greatly yet can be tucked in a pocket or purse. Another option is storage crates, which make loading and unloading groceries easy.

And for those who still have trouble remembering to pack their cloth bags, the store will offer paper bags for 20 cents each.

– Will Sands and Missy Votel