When you look at a map showing the density of abandoned uranium mines in the West, a slice of southwestern Colorado stands out like a little glowing core, with the highest concentration of uranium mines in the country clustered along the wild canyon country Dolores River. Much to the dismay of environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists, mining at some of those sites could resume any time now that the U.S. Department of Energy last month extended a leasing program covering 25,000 acres in the area.
The diggings, ranging in size between a few hundred and few thousand acres, date back to the Cold War era, when the U.S. raced to build bigger, better and more atom bombs — enough, ultimately, to wipe out most life on Earth. Secretive government agents mapped out ore deposits and prompted a classic mining rush in which big-time operators competed with pickup truck miners to pry the crumbly chunks from the ground.
Between 1949 and 1994, southwest Colorado produced about 7.2 million pounds of uranium. If, in an apocalyptic scenario, a nuclear bomb were to explode, scientists may be able to trace the fuel for the device back to specific spots along the Dolores because each ore body has a unique radioactive signature.
The business of building atom bombs is slow these days, and a volatile world energy market has pushed uranium prices to their lowest levels in decades. But there’s plenty of uranium ore left in the region, so a sudden surge in demand could once again make it lucrative for mining companies to develop their claims. And with several active permits already in place, it wouldn’t take much for them to move in their heavy equipment.
A small band of environmentalists and community activists fought against the extension of the leasing program, asserting that the federal government shouldn’t be considering any new mining while many of the existing sites still haven’t been cleaned up. For proof, activist Jennifer Thurston sometimes visits uranium mine sites with a Geiger counter to measure radiation.
At times, usually in front of a mine entrance, her device clicks faster than a field of crickets on a hot summer day. Sometimes, Thurston said, she experiences a “holy shit moment” when she wonders what she’s doing there.
“But usually I don’t bring a Geiger counter. I don’t really want to know how much radiation I’m being exposed to,” she said.
Radiation is the big concern. Hikers or mountain bikers could be exposed if they linger near one of the polluted sites. In places where mining waste rock is exposed, winds could transport radioactive dust. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as 67,000 Coloradans live within a mile of a uranium mine, risking direct exposure to radiation on a regular basis. As many as 1.2 million people in the state live within five miles of a site, a distance EPA says could risk radiation exposure in the course of their daily activities.
The numbers, released in 2011 as part of an ongoing EPA effort to assess uranium mine sites, are part of the framework for the debate over whether uranium mining is safe in the region and whether it should continue.
As often happens when there’s disagreement about the use of federal lands, the fate of the leasing program ended up in court. In 2011, a federal judge blocked mining on the 25,000 acres pending completion of a more in-depth environmental study. Since mining operations had ceased across the area with expiration of the previously authorized leases, environmentalists had hoped the feds might completely withdraw the tracts from leasing.
But after making public the updated environmental study a few weeks ago, the Department of Energy said it’s duty bound to ensure mining access to what remain the richest uranium deposits in the country.
The lands were originally set aside to enable development of strategically critical uranium reserves, said David Shafer, a team leader in the DOE’s office that deals with the legacy of old uranium mines. Shafer said the department’s new study shows that new mining could potentially generate a few hundred jobs in the region. Concerns about environmental threats can’t be completely dismissed, but activists have hyped the issue, as he sees it.
Some residents of southwest Colorado would welcome new jobs from uranium mining as an economic boost in a relatively depressed part of the state. Thurston and other watchdogs say they acknowledge the potential economic benefits, but caution that they need to be weighed against the potential for long-term environmental degradation.
Critics also question the need for more uranium mining in an era where there is a worldwide glut of the material, and investors seem to agree, shying away from uranium mining companies these days. Besides, they point out that many of the existing mine sites are in violation of state and federal environmental standards. Pursuing mine reclamation could potentially employ more people than the mining itself, Thurston said.
Even at inactive mines, floods could release harmful radiation into the Dolores River, EPA cautioned in its 2011 analysis. Those sediments could end up settling down in deeper pools and in river-bottom silt, potentially to the detriment of water bugs and plants that form the basis of the food chain. In a worst-case scenario, a major blowout at a uranium mine could send radioactive pollution surging into the Colorado River.
At the very least, the state and the feds should hold the mine owners responsible for meeting basic reclamation standards, said Jeff Parsons, an attorney with the Western Action Mining Project. In contrast to the orphaned mines from Colorado’s gold and silver rush, many of the uranium sites are owned by companies with active leases, which make them subject to environmental regulation. But those rules have never really been enforced, he said.
Thurston said it wouldn’t take all that much to do basic cleanups that could reduce the risk of accidental exposure to radiation. For starters, the scattered piles of waste rock need to be covered with soil and planted with native vegetation. That reduces weathering and helps prevent fugitive emissions to the air that are the most likely source of exposure for people hiking or working nearby.
She said mine operators should also be held accountable for managing water flows on their lands to make sure none of the pollution reaches nearby streams or ponds. Using berms to direct flows and settling ponds on the mine tracts are simple measures that would prevent radioactive pollution from reaching rivers, she explained. Both techniques are commonly used to clean up other types of mines, but haven’t been required much for the uranium sites because government officials have taken a hands-off approach.
Thurston said she had hoped that the Department of Energy would require more mine remediation as part of the continued leasing program, but instead, the agency only included a very vague blanket statement about cleanups.
Given the low price and large stockpiles of uranium, Parsons said it’s possible that some companies are simply holding on to their claims as a way to bolster their balance sheets by showing the undeveloped ore as an asset. The major companies holding leases in Colorado are Canadian and much of the uranium they produce in North America ends up in China and India.
Said Parsons: “That’s not what’s supposed to happen with America’s strategic uranium reserve.”
[ Photo by the Department of Energy of the Moab uranium mill tailings pile. Uranium ore was mined in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Mill tailings are the sand-like material that remains after the ore is processed. ]