Uranium surge prompts Colorado lawmakers to call for stiff cleanup regulations

A coalition of conservation groups warily eyeing a possible resurgence of Colorado uranium mining in the wake of a national push for more nuclear energy rallied support for a bipartisan uranium cleanup bill at the Capitol Thursday.

Union Carbide's toxic Uravan mill
Union Carbide's toxic Uravan mill

Ahead of a House Transportation and Energy Committee hearing, various politicians, business owners and agricultural representatives advocated for House Bill 1348 (pdf), the so-called “Uranium Processing Accountability Act.”

The Western Mining Action Project and Energy Minerals Law Center, two groups active in watchdogging uranium mining claims and mill proposals in Southwest Colorado, helped spearhead the legislation, which would put stiff new state regulations in place governing uranium mine and mill cleanup, expansion and out-of-state processing.

Environment Colorado and Cañon City’s Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT), which formed in 2002 to prevent Cotter Corporation from storing radioactive waste from New Jersey, approached Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, about the bill in response to Cotter announcing expansion plans last year.

Cotter has a long and messy history of uranium mining and milling pollution in the Cañon City area dating to the 1950s. The company also owns several mining claims in Montrose County and supports plans by the Canadian company Energy Fuels to open a new mill in the west end of that county.

Residents there and in nearby San Miguel County are worried a new uranium mining boom could lead to more highly toxic EPA Superfund Cleanup sites like the ones that have already cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars for operations in Colorado alone. Transporting yellowcake uranium and milling materials like acid and other chemicals is another concern.

Proponents of the comparatively carbon-free nuclear power industry, including Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, maintain the state’s toxic past was born of ignorance about the dangers and new technology makes mining and processing much safer. State lawmakers clearly want more concrete assurances.

“Our number one goal as a legislature should be public safety,” Rep. McFadyen said in a release. “This no nonsense legislation ensures toxic waste cleanup and the health of our citizens.”

HB 1348 would require uranium operators to clean up existing problems before applying for expansion permits; allow local governments, the public and other stakeholders to provide input during the Colorado Department of Putlic Health and Environment’s annual reviews of cleanup financing; require uranium companies to notify residents with water wells near groundwater contamination; and require state licensing when companies accept “alternate feed,” or toxic waste from industrial or medical operations.

“Actions have consequences, and uranium companies need to clean up their mess,” said Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, another sponsor of the bill.

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