EPA tentatively OKs Piñon Ridge plan to store radioactive tailings

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday issued the first federal approval for a controversial uranium mill in western Colorado that would be the first such processing facility in the United States in decades.

But the EPA approval of Canada-based Energy Fuels’ plan to build radioactive tailings impoundments for the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill in the scenic Paradox Valley comes with strings attached.

The Paradox Valley in western Colorado.
Energy Fuels must draft and submit a ground and surface water monitoring plan that’s also subject to EPA review and approval. The Piñon Ridge Mill proposal, which is being challenged by environmental groups, has already received Montrose County and state approval.

EPA officials said their conditions of approval came as a result of an informal public input process.

“EPA added specific conditions to the construction approval that limit the amount of organic material placed in impoundments and require Energy Fuels to submit a detailed surface and groundwater monitoring plan for EPA approval,” EPA officials wrote. “These and other approval conditions are intended to ensure the impoundments are constructed and operated in a manner that protects human health and the environment.”

The impoundment plan is limited to 40 acres and adheres to the Clean Air Act under Radionuclide National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs), according to the EPA. But environmental groups in places like nearby Telluride still have issues with the plan.

Radon regulations approved in the 1980s don’t include monitoring requirements and emissions-reduction technologies, according to the Sheep Mountain Alliance in Telluride. The group opposed EPA approval during the comment period because of the outdated regulations.

“Although we are disappointed with the EPA’s decision to proceed under the outdated radon regulations, we appreciate that they opted to make this approval conditional and required further review,” Sheep Mountain’s Hilary White said. “We continue to have serious concerns about the Piñon Ridge Mill being permitted under rules that do not satisfy the Clean Water Act.”

Sheep Mountain, one of the groups opposing the proposed mill on a number of legal fronts, cites concerns about the possible contamination of the Dolores River watershed and groundwater in the Paradox Valley.

The group also points out that funding for the project and bonding in case of environmental problems remain major issues in light of declining uranium prices. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also recently lost a lawsuit that will require extensive environmental review of uranium mining operations on nearby federal lands that were expected to supply ore to the mill.

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