A unanimous vote for uranium
Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill gains key approval

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Utah’s La Sal Mountains frame the Paradox Valley, located northwest of Durango. A new uranium mill is planned for Paradox and received a vote of confidence from the Montrose County Planning Commission last week. If built, the mill would centralize much of the world’s uranium processing in the Four Corners region./File photo by Amy Levek

by Will Sands

Uranium took another big step back into the region last week. The Piñon Ridge Mill won a contentious approval from the Montrose County Planning Commission in its bid to break ground in the nearby Paradox Valley.

Energy Fuels Inc., a Toronto-based uranium and vanadium mining company, is currently planning the construction of the nation’s first uranium mill in 25 years. The mill would be sited on 1,000 acres of privately owned land in Paradox Valley, halfway between the Dolores and San Miguel rivers. The facility would also be relatively close to the only other operating uranium mill in the U.S. – the White Mesa Mill in Blanding.

Energy Fuels hopes to begin construction in 2011, and last week’s Montrose County Planning Commission approval put Energy Fuels on track to meeting that timeline. The company needs only approvals from the Montrose Board of County Commissioners and the State of Colorado to break ground.

“It was a very important hurdle for us,” said Frank Filas, Energy Fuels’ Environmental Manager. “These days, if the local population is against you, it makes everything difficult down the road. In this case, the majority of the local citizens favored the project, and last week’s unanimous vote reflected that.”

Hundreds of residents of Naturita and Nucla spoke in favor the new mill and the economic stimulus it could offer the impoverished “West End” of Montrose County. However, more than 100 others voiced their opposition to the plan and raised concerns and criticisms of Energy Fuels’ plan to process 1,000 tons of uranium ore each day.

Many pointed to recent history and the former town of Uravan, which was once located just downstream from Naturita. In 1986, the uranium mill/mining town was deemed unfit for human occupation and declared a Superfund site. The clean-up took 15 years and $70 million in federal funding, and widespread cancer is one of Uravan’s only enduring legacies. Travis Stills, an attorney with the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center and long-standing opponent of the mill, noted that these concerns did not fall on deaf Planning Commission ears. The commission did approve the mill, but only contingent on 16 stringent requirements.

“It’s pretty impressive that the community was able to get the Montrose Planning Commission to see serious enough flaws in the application to include 16 conditions in their approval,” Stills said. “Despite what others may say, there is still very informed and considerable opposition to the mill both at a local and regional level.”

Among the 16 conditions, the Planning Commission stipulated that Piñon Ridge can only process raw ore.

This exclusion of “alternate feeds” would prevent Energy Fuels from taking in toxic waste that would necessarily be trucked through the Four Corners. In addition, the approval carried requirements for ground water monitoring and remediation and tracking of all substances that come in and out of the proposed mill.

“The acids and chemicals that will stay on site forever are pretty nasty substances and pose serious threats to public health,” Stills said. “Montrose County took that charge seriously, and I do have to commend the planning staff and commission.”

However, Energy Fuels does not seem concerned about additional contingencies. Filas commented that the company has “never discussed the possibility of accepting alternate feedstocks.” Also, George Glasier, the company’s CEO and a Naturita ranch owner, has boasted that the facility will be “the most environmentally friendly mill in the world.” Filas agreed, commenting that Energy Fuels is currently preparing an application that is “4 feet thick” for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the public should not be concerned about the resurrection of Uravan in the Paradox Valley.

“The entire uranium industry, and milling in particular, is under regulation by the State of Colorado, which is stronger than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules,” he said. “We will have controls on all of our emission points, and the levels will be substantially lower than they were in the 50s and 60s. Plus, the ore we’ll be processing will be mined in Utah and Western Colorado and transported short distances.”

Whether the mill will be financially viable is an entirely different question. Though uranium prices soared as high as $150 a pound during the era of the Bush administration, the price is currently hovering around $50. But Energy Fuels predicts a swing in coming years and decades.

“There are a lot of nuclear power plants being designed, permitted and constructed in our country and especially in places like China and India,” Filas said. “Plus, the uranium supply for nuclear power is currently augmented by the conversion of weapons’ fuel, particularly from Russia. That supply is diminishing rapidly.”

Demand aside, Piñon Ridge’s opponents maintain that radioactivity is no longer welcome in the Paradox Valley. Stills noted that Energy Fuels is attempting to rewrite the rules and bring industry into an agricultural area. He concluded that as the company seeks approvals from the Montrose Board of County Commissioners and State of Colorado it will face opposition the entire way.

“We maintain the position that a uranium mill is an industrial facility that cannot be permitted in this agricultural zone,” Still said. “It is also important to remember that this is a publicly traded company from Ontario that is coming in and attempting to change the character of the Paradox Valley.” •

 

 

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