MONTROSE — It began with the audience turning, facing the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Just over an hour later, a special Montrose County commissioner meeting ended with the unanimous approval of controversial uranium mill permit that was as much an endorsement of American energy independence as it was a repudiation of environmental concerns.
“The worst mining accident that I ever saw happened on 9/11,” commissioner Ron Henderson told the crowd gathered in Friendship Hall to hear a decision on the proposed Piñon Ridge mill. “There has never been a place on earth where the specific density of the air was ever any heavier than it was right there [in Manhattan], caused by political unrest.
“To me that’s a sign that we need to go ahead and stand strong, move forward and be firm and not allow all of our money to go to people that don’t like us,” Henderson added, referring to weaning the American power grid off of fossil fuels. “If they don’t like us, I think it’s fine, but I would just really rather they stay where they are.”
The commissioners voted 3-0 to approve a special-use permit submitted by the Canadian company Energy Fuels more than a year ago. In doing so, all three emphasized they were making a land-use decision, up-zoning from general agricultural, that fits into the county’s master plan. Health and environmental concerns are up to the state and federal governments, they insisted.
“Quite simply, this is a land-use question for Montrose County,” county commission chairman David White said. “So much of what we’ve heard concerning perceived or real environmental impacts are not within our general scope of authority. Expert testimony by those who had environmental concerns was lacking, in my opinion, during the public comment period.”
Travis Stills, managing attorney for the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, countered after the meeting that testimony was lacking because the commissioners refused to allow environmental opponents more than three minutes of public input during two meetings in Nucla and Montrose. No public input was taken at today’s hearing.
White said federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have much more authority over uranium milling and mining than Montrose County, which has a long history of supplying ore for both nuclear weapons and power. But first the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will take up to a year to review the Energy Fuels’ proposal, allowing the county to make appropriate changes.
“Uranium and the mining and milling of it does pose a danger, but that’s also the reason why it could give us a huge benefit,” said Henderson, a zoology major at the University of Colorado and former miner who says he goes to sleep every night watching the Science Channel. “It’s like any relationship; it’s got to be properly handled. And properly handled, uranium can do us a lot of good.”
“I am a strong proponent personally that we need to be energy independent,” Ellis said. “I know we’ve discussed issues of green energy and that type of thing, which still has a long way to go to be developed. In the meantime we have a country that needs to have energy resources. I don’t like to be dependent on other nations that can cut us off at any time.”
Ellis also pointed to statements from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, U.S. Rep. John Salazar and then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail at the time, indicating support for nuclear power as a carbon-free way of obtaining power and easing the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, oil and gas-fired power plants.
“Sen. Udall and [Rep.] Salazar indicated support in those statements,” Energy Fuels environmental manager Frank Filas said after the meeting. “We think after people evaluate the challenges that are ahead, that they would agree with us that nuclear has to be part of the mix, especially if we’re going to lower the amount of carbon dioxide that we’re putting into the atmosphere.”
But Stills, who would not say if his group plans to challenge the commissioners’ decision, did indicate the county put forth a number of conditions that may make the mill proposal more difficult financially.
“As far as what Energy Fuels got, they got less than what they came for,” Stills said. “They came for a full yes from the county. Everybody expected them to say yes without conditions, and now they have 19 conditions, many of which are going to be very difficult to comply with.”
Specifically, one of the conditions dictates that the mill can only handle raw uranium and vanadium ore and that Energy Fuels must regularly provide details of shipments coming into the facility. No other feed stock or waste from other facilities can be handled at Piñon Ridge.
“The two mills that are currently operating sporadically [the Cotter mill and on near Blanding, Utah], they can’t make the finances work without alternative feeds, without processing waste, and there’s no indication that Energy Fuels is somehow different than them,” Stills said.
As for the intense interest focused on Montrose County from residents of surrounding counties, chairman White was fairly blunt about outside concerns impacting a potential revival of the local uranium industry.
“To those in San Miguel, Ouray and Mesa counties, I would ask that you look at your own counties through the same eyes that you have looked at Montrose County,” White said, referring to mining operations in those areas. “Your issues are your issues, and you have them.”