Regulating a radioactive milkshake

DENVER – Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, lead the charge Monday in opposing SB 192, a measure that would mandate the cleanup of radiation-tainted water wells near the Cotter uranium mill in Cañon City. It would also bring state licensing processes up to federal standards of public transparency, including draft review, and put new water-based extraction technologies under the regulation of the Department of Health and the Environment.

That last regulatory portion of the bill is a deal-breaker for Coram, who owns five uranium and vanadium mills across San Miguel and Montrose counties. The bill proposes classifying these new technologies the same way the state does milling, requiring a special license for the practice and putting it under the comprehensive oversight of the Department of Health as opposed to the more limited regulation of the Division of Mining.

“To do a milling license would cost millions of dollars and several years, effectively shutting down that industry,” Coram told The Independent. He estimated that in the Uravan mineral belt alone, which his district sits atop, more than $5 billion in mineral assets could be impacted.

Although the bill has Republican sponsorship from Fruita Rep. Jared Wright in the House, Coram is hardly the only Republican to oppose the bill, particularly in the wake of the Colorado Mining Association’s opposition to it.

That said, Coram may have a financial stake in the regulatory portion of the bill he opposes. Coram’s company, Gold Eagle Mining Inc., bought four uranium mines, three of which are along the Dolores river, back in 1998. While the mines have mostly been out of production since the 80s, Coram’s company is facing an injunction from the state to complete environmental cleanup at all four sites by the end of this month.

On April 15th, the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety sent a letter to Coram concerned that the Department of Energy hasn’t approved any plans to reclaim the mines, nor has the environmental cleanup work begun. Coram is expected to file for an extension by May 14.

“There’s so many sites out there where remediation using the ablation process would be helpful,” said Coram, referring to one of the water-based extraction processes the bill would regulate.

“What he’s really talking about is not so much remediation as reworking,” said Jennifer Thurston of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, a watchdog group that has been pushing for the reclamation of Colorado uranium operations for years.

“He thinks you can take existing waste rock piles at mines and potentially use ablation to re-process them and get more of the uranium out of the waste rock. If they can do that, it would be great. But it hasn’t been put to the test yet and needs to be regulated properly,” she said of the process which creates a slurry of uranium-laced rock and water.

Coram did acknowledge his interest in using ablation for cleanup.

“Yes, ablation can be used for cleanup, for me that’s the beauty of the process, it could work very well in remediation but the passage of this bill would stop all that,” he said.

Coram was impassioned in his opposition to the bill Monday morning when it came up for a final vote in the House. He said that while he would have voted for an earlier version of the measure that excluded the regulation of new technologies, he called the version that includes regulation a war on rural Colorado and a job killer.

What Coram didn’t mention on the floor Monday was his own mines, the urgency the state has placed on their cleanup and the potential impact the bill could have on the cost and timeline for that project.

That’s not necessarily an ethics violation, noted Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch.

“This is the price we pay for having a so called citizen’s legislature … We expect people to have other jobs and bring in real world expertise from those jobs, so the rules are intentionally loose,” said Toro.

House Rule 42 says  members aren’t considered to have a personal interest in a bill if it impacts everyone in their profession equally.

The bill now heads to the Senate for approval of the House’s amendments to include the regulation of new technologies.


[Image of Cotter uranium mill outside of Cañon City by Sarah Kanouse]