Radiation reform
Colorado House passes Uranium Accountability Act

SideStory: Grand contamination

A gate blocks what remains of the once booming town of Uravan. On Monday, the Colorado House of Representatives passed the Uranium Processing Accountability Act, an attempt to clean up current uranium mill contamination and prevent something like Uravan from happening again./File photo

by Will Sands

Colorado took a major step toward clean up this week. The Uranium Processing Accountability Act, legislation designed to safeguard communities against radioactive waste, sailed through the Colorado House of Representatives on Monday, after a 62-2 vote.

The bipartisan bill was inspired by Fremont County’s decades-long struggle to clean up the Cotter Corp.’s Cañon City uranium mill. Ongoing issues at Cotter include groundwater pollution, radon emissions, potential radioactive dust and onsite contamination. In addition, the legislation was introduced just as Cotter started making rumblings about reopening the contaminated site. The bill is intended to ensure that communities and taxpayers are not left with the responsibility for cleaning up radioactive waste.

“Our number one goal as a legislature should be public safety,” said Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This no-nonsense legislation ensures toxic waste cleanup and the health of our citizens.”

The Act also promises to reach well beyond Cañon City. When uranium prices spiked four years ago, prospectors and mining companies started eyeing the deserts of the Western Slope not far from Durango. Local uranium mining got a big nudge in the summer of 2007 when the Department of Energy announced its Uranium Leasing Program. At that time, the agency opened 27,000 additional acres in San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa counties to prospectors seeking the radioactive ore. With this acreage, the DOE estimated that regional mines would produce 2 million tons of unrefined uranium per year.

In response to the new rush, 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 is currently seeking approval from the State of Colorado. However, if the Uranium Processing Accountability Act is signed into law, it could potentially safeguard Southwest Colorado from a Cañon City repeat.

The Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center helped initiate the legislative push, and Travis Stills, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm, called the bill a “welcome step.” He added that Durango’s radioactive legacy is yet another argument in favor of avoiding the mistakes of the past.

“Durangoans should support similar decisive action in the Senate, especially those who can recall breathing the dust stirred from Durango’s uranium mill before relocation and burial in Bodo Canyon was completed in 1990,” he said.

Matthew Garrington, Environment Colorado’s program advocate, said that all of Colorado has reason to applaud the push.

“Uranium companies – and not taxpayers or communities – should be on the hook for cleaning up the toxic, radioactive pollution created at processing facilities,” he said. “This legislation is an important step to help protect Colorado’s air and water from toxic, radioactive uranium pollution.” •



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