Uranium boom begins to slow

The recent uranium boom is trending toward bust in the Four Corners. The White Mesa Mill, the nation’s only operating uranium mill, has temporarily ceased operations in nearby Blanding, Utah. Meanwhile, exploration and mining in the region is also fizzling alongside falling prices for the radioactive ore.

Uranium prices soared as high as $150 a pound during the era of the Bush administration. In response, hundreds of prospectors descended on claims in the canyon country west of Durango. Prices are now a fraction of their former selves, however. With uranium fetching roughly $40 a pound, the recent uranium rush has experienced a decided cooling. Most significantly, Denison Mines Corp., a leading uranium producer in the U.S. and Canada, has announced it will cease its regular operations at the White Mesa Mill for the remainder of 2009.

Ron Hochstein, president of Denison, noted that the current price of uranium does not support the costs of operating the mill, which is the only operating mill in the nation. Denison will be laying off personnel, though it will continue to process waste materials – “alternate feedstock,” according to the company – on a more limited scale. Denison is also scaling back its mining operations and temporarily shut two of its mines in the region.

Denison and other companies feel that the cooling is a temporary one, however. With that in mind, Denison is forging ahead with an ambitious plan for uranium development along the Western Slope and in eastern Utah. In late April, Denison announced it would begin delivering at least 1 million pounds of enriched uranium per year beginning in 2011.

Peter Farmer, Denison’s chief executive officer, commented, “Denison will continue to enter into similar long-term contracts with nuclear utilities world-wide at prices which will support the continued development of its uranium reserves and resources and the operation of its uranium production facilities.”

In late April, Denison sold a 19.9 percent stake in the company to the Korea Electric Power Corp. Denison will sell as much as 690,000 pounds of enriched uranium a year to the state-run utility. The contract does represent a new dilemma for Four Corners residents – the likelihood that the local region will bear the toxic remnants of shipping uranium overseas.

At the same time, another uranium mill could soon join White Mesa in the region. Energy Fuels is in the process of raising funds to build a processing facility north of Dove Creek in Paradox Valley. The company has pinpointed $70/pound as a price that could sustain uranium milling operations. The Piñon Ridge Mill had its first permit hearing in front of Montrose County officials May 19.

Big water returns to Black Canyon

Boaters, anglers and wildlife celebrated a recent victory in the Black Canyon. Water spilled over the top of the Crystal Dam and into the Gunnison River early this month during the first of soon-to-be annual high water releases. The spill marked the resolution of one of Colorado’s most contentious water fights, a deadlock that spanned more than three decades.  

Parties including Black Canyon National Park, conservationists, waters user and the State of Colorado reached an agreement late last year. The settlement established a baseline flow of 300 cfs through the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge, which are renowned whitewater runs and Gold Medal fisheries. Beyond that, it established a flow regime that includes annual peak flows and shoulder flows tied to available water. Based on storage and snowpack, this year’s flows got up to 6,000 cfs, well above the usual peak of roughly 1,000 cfs.

Conservationists and park officials noted that the flushes will enhance the health of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon as a whole. “This agreement recognizes the importance of Black Canyon National Park and the need to preserve its spectacular resources for the benefit of present and future generations,” said Libby Fayad, of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Specifically, the flows will create a healthier trout fishery, cleanse sediment that causes whirling disease, clear debris, maintain the river channel, and improve the aesthetics for visitors.

Bart Miller, an attorney for Western Resource Advocates, represented five conservation groups in the settlement. He noted that while the spill is a win for the natural resource, it will also respect the rights of water users. “It took lots of effort, but the negotiation resulted in a win-win – a water right that protects the national park and accommodates other water uses,” he said.

The National Park Service has been fighting for the flows since 1972.

Bicycle Safety Bill signed into law

Colorado cyclists officially slipped into the fast lane last week. Gov. Bill Ritter signed the Bicycle Safety Bill into law May 11. The new measure promises to make road riding safer all over the state once it goes into effect on Aug 5.

During the signing, Greg Brophy, the bill’s Colorado Senate sponsor, sung the new law’s praises. “The new law makes it legal for cyclists and motorists to do what they intuitively know is the safest action,” he said.

Most significantly, the bill will require automobiles to give riders 3 feet of clearance when passing and allow motorists the leeway to cross the centerline when doing so. Another “common sense rule” in the bill clarifies that cyclists can ride as far right as is safe or to the far left on one-way roads with more than one lane. Cyclists can also ride side-by-side if they are not impeding the normal and reasonable movement of traffic. Lastly, throwing an object toward a bicyclist would be a class 2 misdemeanor, and driving toward a bicyclist in a dangerous manner would be a careless driving offense.

Following a complex legislative process, the House and Senate passed the bill in April. “This bill takes a big step toward improving safety for everyone on Colorado roads,” said Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado.

Fort Lewis receives a green grant

A six-figure donation is helping propel Fort Lewis College toward the environmental forefront. The Department of Local Affairs Energy and Mineral Impact Assistance Program has awarded the local college $300,000 toward the completion of its new student union building. The funds will help the structure attain LEED Gold status – the U.S. Green Building Council’s second-highest certification standard.

The two projects funded through this grant are both tied to solar energy. One is a solar hot water system that will be used to provide hot water to the union. The other is a photovoltaic system that will sit on the roof of the union and provide electricity through solar panels.

When it is finished, the $37.5 million FLC student union project will completely renovate the existing College Union Building and add 38,000 square feet. The project should be completed in 2011.

– Will Sands




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