Powertech says no negative connotation to EPA withdrawal of uranium mining permit

An attorney for a company trying to open an in-situ leach uranium mine 15 miles northeast of Fort Collins says the withdrawal this week of an EPA permit for the project is not a significant setback.

Powertech wants to clarify that this really is not a revocation of a permit, which has a negative connotation, but simply a withdrawal of a permit that the EPA wants to go back and reconsider, and Powertech believes that the next issued approval will be even more airtight than this one was,” John Fognani, of Fognani and Fought, told The Colorado Independent.

The EPA’s Region 8 office withdrew the Class V Underground Injection Control permit issued to Powertech’s Centennial Project in December. The federal agency was responding in part to two petitions filed by Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction (CARD) and nearby property owner James Woodward.

The two petitions raised several issues with the permit issued in December, according to a CARD press release, including the EPA’s failure to include maximum well injection pressure requirements, review Powertech data from aquifer pump tests conducted in 2008, and assess plugging old exploration drill holes. CARD and some area residents are concerned about the potential contamination of numerous drinking water wells in the area.

“The petitions raised substantial issues with the permit warranting re-evaluation by EPA, and they were right to withdraw it,” nearby property owner and CARD co-founder Jay Davis said in the release. “Powertech and EPA have repeatedly promised to meet the highest standards in reviewing this project so as to protect groundwater upon which hundreds of nearby wells rely on for drinking, irrigation and stock watering. We intend to hold them to that promise.”

Fognani wouldn’t address the more technical aspects of CARD’s claims, deferring instead to EPA officials.

“If [EPA] felt comfortable making the [original permit] decision that they did without the necessity of considering that test-bore data, they really are the experts,” Fognani said. “It doesn’t to the company signify any kind of fundamental flaw, but again, if the EPA feels more comfortable going back and reconsidering some of these issues and then reissuing the permit within the next few months, Powertech’s perfectly comfortable with that idea.”

The Centennial Project in Weld County would produce 700,000 pounds of U308 uranium ore a year, according to Powertech estimates. The EPA will now release a revised draft permit in the next several weeks, opening up the process for more public comment.

“Full transparency and a rigorous review requires that EPA consider all relevant information, including necessary and available data regarding the integrity of confining layers in the aquifer and the condition of improperly abandoned historic drill holes in the immediate area,” said Jeff Parsons, a senior attorney with the Western Mining Action Project, which filed the CARD appeal.

The Powertech project is part of a growing effort to revive Colorado’s moribund uranium mining industry in order to capitalize on a push for more nuclear power in the United States as a much lower carbon alternative to coal- and gas-fired power plants. However, some environmental groups in Colorado are resistant to what they consider the “dirty front end” of uranium mining.

Fognani says technology has improved dramatically since the heyday of the state’s uranium mining boom in the 1950s and 60s and that nuclear power, fueled by Colorado uranium, needs to be a bigger part of the nation’s energy mix. The latest EPA decision, he said, is an example of the federal government making sure its permitting process is “airtight.”

“The fundamental feeling is that the EPA decision to grant the permit in the first instance was imminently defensible, but this is an EPA decision and the company will respect and abide by it and is comfortable with it,” Fognani said.

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