Groups say EPA poised to approve uranium mill using outdated radon regulations

The scenic Paradox Valley would be home to a new uranium mill if Toronto-based Energy Fuels prevails against a pending legal challenge.

Colorado conservation groups battling a proposed uranium mill in far western Colorado have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold off on approving the project until the federal agency updates its antiquated air quality regulations for radon emissions.

The state and the county have already signed off on plans for the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill in western Montrose County. The facility, proposed by Toronto-based Energy Fuels, would be the first new uranium-processing mill built in the United States in nearly three decades.

According to the Telluride-based environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance and Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT) out of Cañon City, the EPA is basing its proposed approval of Piñon Ridge on 1989 Clean Air Act regulations that Congress ordered updated in 1990. CCAT sued and reached a settlement with the EPA in 2009 that compelled the agency to review its regulations to ensure the public health is protected from radon emissions.

That review has not been completed, and the two groups want the EPA to hold off on its approval of Piñon Ridge until the agency finishes its review by the end of this year.

“While we thank the EPA for opening a comment period on this permit, it just doesn’t make any sense to issue any approvals for this mill until the agency reviews outdated air quality protections according to provisions of a legal settlement EPA entered in 2009,” Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, said in a release.

Energy Fuels has proposed a 40-acre impoundment to hold mine tailings. Such tailings emit radon, a radioactive gas that can increase the risk of cancer if inhaled, according to the EPA.

EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott would not speak to the specifics of the comments (pdf) filed by either conservation group.

“EPA is currently reviewing comments received on our proposed approval of the Piñon Ridge tailings impoundment,” Mylott said in an email to the Colorado Independent. “We will be developing a response to comments in the next few weeks.”

White, whose group is suing both the county and the state for their approvals of the proposed mill, said the toxic legacy of uranium mining in the region in the 1950s, 60s and 70s underscores the need to bring regulations and mitigation technology up to the most current of standards.

“Our region’s health and long-term economic vitality may be severely damaged from dangerous radon emissions from the Piñon Ridge Mill,” White said. “It’s crucial we have the best, most modern regulations to protect the key natural values that add so many economic benefits to our region. We cannot afford the dangers of uranium milling and mining of the past to be repeated again on the Western Slope.”

CCAT has been embroiled in years of legal wrangling over the cleanup of the Cotter Mill in Cañon City.

“The legacy of uranium mining and milling in Colorado is replete with a lack of transparency and cleanups not being done,” said CCAT’s Sharon Cunningham, whose well water was contaminated by the Cotter Mill. “At the same time, approvals are fast-tracked and safeguards to protect our air and water are given no priority. It’s time for that legacy to change, and it should begin with the EPA.”

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