Colorado law sanctioning uranium mills complicates plans for New Mexico mine

A controversial plan to open an old uranium mine on Mt. Taylor near Grants, New Mexico, faces an obstacle in the new law passed by the Colorado legislature that forbids increased operations at uranium mills until the mill companies clean up sites contaminated in the past. The Cotter Uranium Mill, just a little over a mile south of Cañon City is owned by the same company that owns the Mt. Taylor mine and is the designated recipient of future Mt. Taylor uranium ore. Under the new law, which Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has yet to sign, Cotter would not be able to accept the ore, at least not any time soon.

Union Carbide's toxic Uravan, Colorado, mill

“This is not unexpected,” John Hamrick, vice president of milling at Cotter, told the Cañon City Daily Record. “This bill will prevent us from processing the Mount Taylor ore.”

Activists have battled what they say is a dangerously opaque and unresponsive culture at Cotter, a culture that hasn’t improved since General Atomics bought the mine in 2000. Indeed the state’s new uranium clean-up legislation came about in part due to the efforts of Sharyn Cunningham, who with her family bought five acres in Cañon City’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1994 and for eight years used a drinking water well contaminated by the nearby Cotter mill.

Cunningham says she and her family’s health suffered from the contamination but she decided not to sue Cotter, even as other area residents fought the mill in a pair of class-action lawsuits. Cunningham says she wants to focus on changing Cotter’s corporate culture and thought legislation was the best way to do that. She points out that neither the real estate agent not the seller of her property revealed the well’s contamination and that health officials and Cotter were not compelled by law to notify land buyers. Colorado’s uranium milling bill requires Cotter and other operators of uranium processing facilities to send an annual letter notifying residents with water wells near groundwater contamination.

These kinds of concerns haunt uranium mining and milling in New Mexico as well, where activity was brisk from the 1950s through the early 1980s, when the industry closed shop in the state. The Mt Taylor mine is a conventional, underground site that was filled with water and shuttered. Mills in New Mexico were also closed.

Now, an increase in uranium prices has led to numerous proposals for new uranium mining in the west , which brings the promise of jobs to economically depressed communities, despite ongoing controversy. Many families cite past uranium mining for an increase in disease, through either direct exposure to work in the mines or through the impacts of environmental contamination caused by the mines.

In fact contamination continues to be a problem; 137 of 259 old uranium mines have never been restored. Some activists say that all the old mines should be properly cleaned up before new mining is even considered and are skeptical of claims that new technologies render mining safe today.

Proposed mine is within a Traditional Cultural Property

Compounding these concerns is that much of the proposed new mining is on or very near Mt. Taylor, which is a sacred site to some American Indian peoples, including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi, the Zuni, and the nearby Laguna and Acoma Pueblos. Those five groups successfully petitioned the state to permanently designate Mt. Taylor an official Traditional Cultural Property in 2009. That designation doesn’t give the tribes veto power over mining proposals within the almost 400,000 acre expanse of land, but it does give them an avenue to provide more substantive input on development decisions that come before the federal and state agencies in charge of permitting.

The owner of the Mt. Taylor mine is Rio Grande Resources, a wholly owned subsidiary of the same company that owns the Cotter Mill–General Atomics Corporation. The environmental record of General Atomics at the Cotter Mill is cause for concern in New Mexico, said Eric Jantz, attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

“Since General Atomics acquired the Cotter Corporation in 2000, the company has had over a hundred violations of federal and state environmental laws,” Jantz said. “This demonstrates a pattern of willful disregard for environmental law, which is a real concern for the community.”

General Atomics has not responded to requests for comment.

Colorado mill is already a Superfund site

The Cotter mill opened in 1958, and from that year until 1978, radionuclides and various heavy metals were discharged into 11 unlined tailings ponds.

Those ponds were replaced in 1982 with two lined ponds, but it was too late to stop the contamination. The mill was designated a federal Superfund site in 1984, due to excessive uranium contamination of both the groundwater and the soil under the mill as well as under the surrounding community. It has also been cited for violating a laundry list of Colorado environmental regulations.

There is only one mill in the United States that is currently operating–the White Mesa Mill in Utah, which has its own environmental problems.

The lack of milling facilities makes the resumption of widespread conventional mining problematic. Building a uranium mill has huge upfront costs–in the hundreds of millions of dollars–which makes the new Colorado law a big problem for Mt. Taylor ore as well as any other ore that is mined from a conventional mine in the state. Currently, about a third of the known uranium resources in New Mexico are owned by another company, Hydro Resources, Inc., which is planning a combination of both conventional and in situ leaching mines.

The use of insitu leaching mining won’t be affected by a lack of mills, as the ore acquired under that process is drawn up after being dissolved in underground aquifers, which makes it essentially ready to be sent for enrichment. With conventional mining, the ore comes straight from the earth and has to be processed in a mill before it can be enriched.

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