Uranium Mining Whets Thirst for Drinking Water

The Navajo Indians call it “yellow death.” But like so much of what happens in Colorado, the question of uranium mining may boil down to the state’s most precious and rare resource: drinking water.The battle brewing in Weld County, where a Canadian company plans to ask for permission to mine uranium by year’s end, will certainly be about water quality.

That became clear Wednesday with the introduction of two bills into the General Assembly. The bills address what sponsors, scientists and doctors say is the potential pollution of a new technique to draw uranium ore from beneath the earth all over Colorado.

By session’s end, some members of the legislature hope to raise the bar high enough to avoid past environmental disasters caused by mining. Those disasters turned into perpetual clean-ups costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Almost all involved poisoning water supplies with toxic chemicals.

One new law seeks to ensure that mining companies can restore water supplies to their pre-mined status before the companies begin ore extraction. This before-the-fact proof is necessary, critics of uranium mining claimed in a Capitol briefing Wednesday.

However, said Jeffrey Parsons, a senior attorney with the Western Mining Action Project, definitive evidence may be impossible to offer for the new uranium mining technology that would be employed in Weld and other Colorado counties.

Not so, claimed a spokeswoman for Powertech, the company that plans to mine uranium in Weld a short drive from Fort Collins and amidst small towns such as Nunn.

Haley McKean of Peter Webb Public Relations said Powertech will be able to show the statutorily required five sites where the mining technique called in-situ leaching has not substantially changed water quality in the long run.

In-situ leaching injects chemicals into the earth that draw uranium into the water. The uranium is then extracted from the water and the water re-injected into the ground.

Test wells in Weld County have only been operating for three months, McKean said. So another year of data must be gathered there before Powertech can ask local, state and federal regulators for permits to begin mining.

Still, the company has said it expects to get those permits and could be extracting ore by 2010.

But the Colorado Mining Association claimed that one of the newly proposed laws “would ban many technologies essential to modern mining operations without enhancing environmental protections.”

Better safe than sorry, replied Dr. Cory Carroll of the Colorado Medical Society. The toxic chemical residue sometimes left in ground water by uranium mining can concentrate in the brains of people or animals that drink the water.

“The more I research this, the residual chemicals are of concern,” said Carroll, a Larimer County physician.

Animals may be most at risk of dying, but higher rates of non-lethal diseases have been associated with humans living near uranium mining sites. The effects were devastating enough on Navajo Indian reservations that the tribe has now banned uranium mining, Parsons said.

“They call it `yellow death,’ ” Carroll said.

Uranium also breaks down into radon, a pollutant linked to cancer, the doctor explained.

In part, that led Reps. John Kefalas of Fort Collins and Randy Fischer of Larimer County to sponsor both new mining bills.

Kefalas said Colorado’s last experiment with in-situ leaching in the 1970s left water with “15 times” the pollution levels that it had before the in-situ mining.

Getting so many contaminates into the water supply could filter its way up the food chain, Kefalas claimed.

All the way to the “cheese on your pizza,” he said, talking about a dairy processing plant that might soon locate near Greeley and rely on the milk from local cows.

Though the mining industry claims new and improved water reclamation processes, the pollution threat still demands a new standard for mining permits, Fischer said.

“There has been radioactive contamination from previous uranium mines,” he explained. “We need 21st century laws to meet the risks of 21st century mining. We have to act now to protect water resources statewide.”

Republican Sen. Steve Johnson, also of Larimer, worried about 30,000 families drawing water from wells in the underground aquifer affected by Powertech’s mining.

“I don’t think this technique should be done so close to a ground water supply,” he said.

A second proposed law addresses the ability of localities to know that such mining could even happen. Right now, Parsons claimed, Colorado allows mining companies to prospect in complete secrecy.

People have the right to know what’s going on in their extended backyards. Especially when what’s happening could affect their lives for decades.

And most of it comes back to water.

Powertech claims that it will not have to bring the water it pollutes in Weld County back to a drinking standard because that water is not currently drinkable.

This comes as news to Nunn rancher Robin Davis.

“We’re drinking water from that aquifer right now,” she said.