A sign posted near an active mine in Uravan, CO., is a reminder of the potential dangers involved with mining uranium. A recent court ruling puts uranium and vanadium mining in Southwestern Colorado on hold until the Department of Energy completes a comprehensive environmental impact study./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Waiting in mines

Recent court decision puts uranium mining in SW Colorado on hold
by Tracy Chamberlin

Uranium mining in Southwest Colorado sits in a holding pattern. Thirty-one leases to mine uranium and vanadium along the Uravan Mineral Belt were suspended Oct. 18 when U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez ruled on a lawsuit brought against the Department of Energy by five environmental groups.

At the heart of the suit is the environmental assessment the DOE performed in 2005, which resulted in a finding of “no significant impact” and a renewed leasing program in 2007.

The plaintiffs charged the DOE failed to talk to all affiliated agencies and consider the site specifics in each lease. These omissions were considered violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act by the judge. The defendants – the Department of Energy and its Office of Legacy Management – have 60 days to appeal.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, one of six leaseholders affected by the decision, has no interest in requesting an appeal, and the DOE said it was not willing to comment on the case at this time.

The mines will, therefore, remain inactive, including all exploratory and reclamation activities, until the judge’s orders are satisfied. Martinez directed the DOE to conduct a more thorough environmental impact statement before the court will reconsider overturning the stay.

The DOE revealed in June its intention to do a more in-depth and sight-specific study, estimating it would take 12 to 15 months. However, Martinez wrote in his decision that the DOE did not give a reason for changing course, which gave the court no assurances it would “without unacceptable or undue delay.”

Rep. Coram said due to the intended study and its proposed timeline, this is “not a game-changer” for his company, Gold Eagle Mining, and the judge’s decision was not a surprise.

The DOE currently has no schedule in place and would not comment on when the study would be complete. The department is “just wrapping up a scoping study,” according to Steve Schiesswohl, a team leader with the Office of Legacy Management.

The five groups who filed the suit include the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Center for Native Ecosystems, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sheep Mountain Alliance.

Jennifer Thurston, spokeswoman for the Sheep Mountain Alliance, believes the EIS will be completed in the next one to two years, and said the Alliance will keep an eye on its progress.

Thurston would not speculate on the plaintiff’s next move if the findings of “no significant impact” remain unchanged, but does not believe a legitimate study will wind up with the same results.

Whether it changes or not, Martinez’s decision will reverberate beyond last week’s ruling. Because judges rely on previous case law and precedence, their rulings have a cumulative effect. The real impact will be on the future.

In his decision, Martinez commented that the DOE did not “concede or even believe that its preparation” of the impact study was required by law. He felt it was.

But, the DOE’s interpretation left the door open in the future for the department to consider itself “free to walk away from any commitment to complete the (impact study)” compelling Martinez to force the DOE to act.

Dan Randolph, executive director for the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance in Durango, said the judge’s decision could have implications on other energy developments because of the authority it gives to the letter of the law. “They have to go back to square one,” Randolph added.

For the department, square one includes consulting the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Martinez determined the EPA “has special expertise with respect to uranium mining, specifically radon emissions from uranium mines” and should have been included earlier in the process. The delay is a violation of NEPA, according to the judge.

The plaintiffs also argued that the DOE violated the Endangered Species Act when issuing the leases. Under the act, the Fish and Wildlife Service does not have to be consulted if it is determined there will be “no effect” on listed species or their habitats. Specifically mentioned are four fish species: the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker, and bonytail chub.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs because the DOE stated in its own original assessment that the effect on wildlife would be “highly unlikely,” not that there would be “no effect” at all.

As of June this year, the DOE stated it was planning to contact the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Travis Stills, said he hopes Martinez’ ruling will force the DOE to a take a serious and transparent look at what’s happening on these public lands.

The Sheep Mountain Alliance has several other cases pending in the courts. A recent water case against Energy Fuels Resources, owners of the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill in Paradox Valley, was settled out of court in September after the company agreed to comply with all requests made by the Alliance and their fellow plaintiff, Living Rivers. The Alliance also has another water case concerning the San Miguel River.

The final item on the Alliance’s docket also focuses Energy Fuels and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Thurston estimates a ruling on that case as early as next year.

“We don’t have an agenda to stop nuclear energy,” Thurston added. “We have an agenda to protect Paradox Valley, and the San Miguel and Dolores rivers.”

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