State takes on uranium boom

The uranium boom will not be going unchecked in Southwest Colorado. This week, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation to ensure that water quality and public health are not harmed by the current surge in mining of the radioactive ore.

Courtesy of high global demand and prices, a uranium boom is now in full swing in the Four Corners region. First, a Department of Energy decision last summer opened an additional 27,000 acres on the Western Slope to uranium mining. The prospectors answered the call and filed 10,730 new uranium mining claims in Western Colorado in 2007 alone. In addition, an energy company is forging ahead with plans to build a new uranium processing facility just north of Dove Creek.

However, the radioactive resurgence is not going unnoticed. Taking the work of activists and watchdogs a step further, the Colorado State Legislature has ensured that future mining will be done in a safe and clean manner.

House Bill 1161 and Senate Bill 228 passed through the Colorado Assembly with broad bipartisan support May 12. House Bill 1161 establishes minimum standards to protect Colorado’s environment and ground water from unsafe leach uranium mining. In addition, the new law will require all uranium mines in Colorado to meet basic environmental and public health protections as “designated mining operations.” Once ore is removed, mining companies will have to restore the ground water at injection uranium mining projects to original, pre-mining conditions or to state standards.

Senate Bill 228 provides greater transparency for all mineral exploration. Prior to the bill, the state kept the public in the dark and all information about mining exploration secret.

Travis Stills, an attorney with the Durango-based Energy Mineral Law Center, praised the two bills, saying they will be especially significant for Southwest Colorado.

“These bills do many things to respond to the ongoing uranium rush in the Four Corners,” he said. “Most of all, SB228 lifts a veil of secrecy to allow local residents to know when uranium prospectors are active near their home or on public lands in the Dolores and San Miguel watersheds. The main points of HB1161 address water impacts from in situ leach mining and ensures that modern mining laws apply to all uranium mines through an environmental protection plan.”

Despite the bills’ passage, a group called Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction is calling for continued public vigilance. The group’s spokesperson, Lilias Jarding, argued that passing laws is not the same as enforcing them. “Passing laws does not mean a problem is solved,” Jarding said. “A law is just a piece of paper. People need to stay involved to be sure that state agencies follow up with strong rules that will protect our water. And then we need to track enforcement of the rules, so that we are truly protected from this dangerous industry.”


Sithe Global stumbles in Nevada

The developer of the Desert Rock Power Plant appears to be back-pedaling on another of its proposed coal-fired power plants. Sithe Global recently let a water contract lapse in its bid to build a plant half the size of Desert Rock in Nevada.

Sithe Global and financial backer The Blackstone Group have gained local notoriety for their proposed 1,500 megawatt Desert Rock Power Plant. The plant would be located on Navajo Nation land southwest of Farmington and not far from two existing coal-fired power plants. Its potential negative impacts on the Four Corners airshed have drawn widespread opposition.

However, Desert Rock is not Sithe Global’s only effort. The Houston-based company has four other coal-fired power plants in the works, including the 750-megawatt Toquop Power Plant near Mesquite, Nev. And this week, the company let its contract for water to cool the proposed Toquop Plant lapse. The opposition is reading the move as good news.

“It is probably looking less and less likely to go forward,” Tim Hay, a Public Utilities Commission member and opponent of the plant, told theLas Vegas Sun. “It is probably an indication that they, for internal reasons, have decided to abandon the project.”

Frank Maisano, spokesman for Sithe and Desert Rock, countered that the company plans to go forward with the plant. However, he did hint that Sithe might be experiencing some financial issues. Maisano said the company made the first of two payments for the water but was unable to come up with the

funds for the second payment given that the plant’s state and federal permits had not been finalized.

“We would have had to make a big payment,” he said. “We’re not in a position to do that.”

Maisano concluded by telling the paper that Sithe was continuing to negotiate for the water settlement in spite of the fact that it had lapsed.


Hermosa burn deemed a success

The Hermosa Prescribed Burn is no longer smoldering north of Durango. Nearly 13,000 acres were treated at a cost of $372,000 during the fire late last week. And in spite of smoke issues, which led to a public health warning, fire managers and Division of Wildlife officials are hailing the prescribed fire as a success.

Fire managers deliberately triggered the fire 10 miles north of Durango in order to enhance forest health and curb the risk of devastating wildfire. “Burning the Hermosa drainage now in the spring can help prevent a devastating wildfire during the hotter, dryer summer months,” said Pauline Ellis, Columbine District Ranger. “As we all know from experience, a large wildfire can last for weeks instead of days.”

Another objective of the project was to improve big game forage and restore the ecosystem as a whole. On this count, the fire was deemed a success by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The DOW along with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated $40,000 each to offset the cost of the burn.

“I’m very pleased they are able to do this burn. The elk are going to have really good forage this next winter,” said Andy Holland, terrestrial biologist with CDOW. “All the wildlife and plant species in this area are fire adapted, so from an ecological health standpoint, this is the way it should be.”

The southern portion of the main Hermosa Creek Trail, as well as the Jones Creek, Dutch Creek, Little Elk and Clear Creek trails were closed last week during the fire. The Forest Service expected the trails to be reopened by the weekend.


Big highway funds arrive in region

Big federal dollars have been funneled toward area roadways. An additional $12 million in federal appropriations will go to road improvements in La Plata County this summer, thanks in part to the aid of U.S. Rep. John Salazar and changes to the federal highway bill.

The $12 million will be divided between the area’s principle highways – U.S. Hwy. 550 and U.S. Hwy. 160. A total of $7 million will go to U.S. Hwy. 550 from the New Mexico stateline to Durango, including two bridges, drainage improvements, deer fencing and widening portions of 550 to four lanes. The remainder of the funding will go to U.S. Hwy. 160 between State Highway 3 and an area east of the Florida River. A second westbound lane will be added into Durango, and there will be partial construction of a relocated interchange at Farmington Hill.

Joelle Riddle, chair of the La Plata County Board of Commissioners, noted, “We are thrilled that Congressman Salazar has succeeded in getting this funding through to improve our local highways. These funds are crucial and enable us to provide safer and more efficient travel.”

– Will Sands