Uranium mill opponents weighing options in wake of state approval

Conservation groups opposed to the planned Piñon Ridge Mill in far western Colorado expressed “extreme disappointment” with Wednesday’s state approval of a radioactive materials license for what would be the first new uranium processing facility in the United States in a quarter of a century.

Hilary White, executive director of Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance, which is already suing Montrose County for its special use permit approval of the project, said it’s too soon to discuss legal action against the state. But she said her organization will weigh all of its options, including appeal, after fully digesting the 432-page license decision.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) issued the decision after 14 months of review and eight public meetings in Montrose and San Miguel counties. Piñon Ridge, which would process up to 500 tons of uranium and vanadium a day, is a project of Toronto-based Energy Fuels.

The company hopes to spark a uranium mining and nuclear power revival in the former U.S. epicenter of yellowcake production for fuel rods and Cold War weapons that stretches along the remote Colorado-Utah border.

“Energy Fuels is actively consolidating uranium mining in the Uravan Mineral Belt of western Colorado and eastern Utah,” according to the company’s website. “Through the development of its Piñon Ridge Mill, Energy Fuels is facilitating the opening of both developed and new mines and will return this region to its former position of prominence as a source of uranium to fuel the U.S. nuclear power industry.”

That consolidation includes a partnership with an Australian company, announced last month, to acquire the mine holdings of another Canadian mining company, Uranium One, which has been divesting itself of its Colorado assets ahead of a takeover by a Russian company.

White argues the state did not fully consider the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts the mill will have on the region’s air and water quality given the outdoor recreation and tourism economy that has grown in the area in the decades since the last major uranium boom in the 1950s and 60s. She pointed to a recently released study commissioned by her organization.

“It’s just unfortunate that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that is charged with protecting the public health and the environment of the state of Colorado chose to ignore significant — not only public health — but serious environmental and socio-economic impacts that could result from this mill,” White said.

Warren Smith, community involvement manager of the state’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, said the concerns raised by the public and groups such as Sheep Mountain Alliance that participated in the review process are addressed in the decision and the Environmental Impact Analysis.

“Because Sheep Mountain Alliance has issued this reaction on the same day as our decision was announced, it is unlikely that they have actually read the 432-page decision document that we believe addresses all of these issues,” Smith said in an email. “Therefore, we do not see a reason to respond to these allegations at this time.”

In a press release announcing the decision, the state listed a number of conditions of approval, including an $11 million financial warranty for decommissioning the facility – which some critics say would be woefully inadequate to fully clean up the mill if things go wrong — and a long-term care fund of $827,590 to be deposited in the state treasury. Questions about the financial viability of Energy Fuels given current uranium prices have dogged the project since its inception.

“Energy Fuels has demonstrated it can build and operate the mill in a manner that is protective of both human health and the environment,” Steve Tarlton, the state’s radiation program manager, said in a release. “Our comprehensive review considered short- and long-term impacts of the proposed mill, including radiological and non-radiological impacts to water, air and wildlife, as well as economic, social and transportation-related impacts.”

Opponents counter that past uranium milling and mining projects, including an EPA Superfund Cleanup site at the Cotter Mill near Cañon City, have cost the state and its taxpayers dearly, and that Energy Fuels lacks the resources to fully mitigate the impacts should the facility run into economic or environmental problems.

“I am deeply concerned that this mill will damage our health, our air, our water and our property values,” said Craig Pirazzi, a member of the Paradox Valley Sustainability Association. “The legacy of uranium mining and milling in Colorado is contaminated groundwater and hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs – which is a real possibility here. The economics of this mill and the mining associated with it have proven themselves not to be sustainable.”

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