Judge Yanks Uranium Mill Permit

Uranium Activists Meet in Moab
June 18, 2012
Pushing a National Clean Energy Agenda
June 27, 2012

Judge Yanks Uranium Mill Permit

by Janet Johnson, Grand Junction

Western Colorado Uranium Trouble Spots
Map by Rocky Mountain Wild.

A Denver District Court invalidated the radioactive materials license for the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill in western Montrose County on June 13. The license had been issued to Energy Fuels, Inc., by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) in January 2011.

Judge John Mc Mullen said, “The Department had ignored its agreement with the Federal government to comply with Federal and Colorado State requirements for not allowing the public meaningful participation in the licensing process.”   This ruling echoed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complaint earlier this year that CDPHE had failed to follow the Atomic Energy Act guidelines.  The ruling ordered a formal public hearing within 75 days of July 5, 2012.  

The conservation groups which brought this suit forward (Sheep Mountain Alliance and Western Mining Action Project), joined by the governments of the towns of Telluride and Ophir, won a huge court victory for the communities in our region by creating an opportunity for us to challenge all of the serious and substantiated environmental, health and economic impacts another uranium mill would bring to us.  Western Colorado Congress members have been working with a regional alliance addressing this issue.

This court case is a prime example of why citizen participation in this process is vital even though we’ve heard repeatedly in the last few years that “things are different now in the uranium industry…there are new regulations.”  The flawed CDPHE process at the Cañon City mill allowed it to be a 30-year Superfund site until a local citizen group exerted enough pressure to get it closed last year. 

The remediation of the uranium mills in Western Colorado cost us, as taxpayers, over $2 billion in state taxes alone in addition to an even larger amount in Federal taxes, and there are ongoing problems at each mill site.  The physical properties at the former uranium mills have been destroyed and buried and some of the soils mitigated, but much of the earth, even though it has been landscaped, remains highly radioactive.

The waters at mill sites were not cleaned up, but the Department of Energy (DOE) preferred action of “natural flushing” for 100 years has been used.  The DOE recently requested that the allowable standard of radioactive materials discharged into the waters at the Uravan mill site be raised because of the difficulty of cleanup to the present standard.

The complex radioactive web over the Uravan Mineral belt since the US Government procurement program 60 years ago also includes over 1,300 unremediated uranium mines. These mines vary in size and degree of radioactive wastes that are subject to winds, water, erosion and human disturbance creating vast amounts of radioactive and toxic degradation.  Recently, U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) proposed a “study” under the National Defense Authorization Act that would require three federal agencies to determine the extent of the hazard they pose and the demands and costs to close the mines.

Some of the mines are DOE leases, most privately owned but uncared for, and others abandoned. The DOE leases are in a process of a court-ordered Environmental Impact Review process now to determine their impacts on this area. As taxpayers we should not be responsible to reclaim all the mines under private ownership, but we should be included as partners with the governmental leaders and agencies in those decisions.

Last summer the DOE trans-ported 400 truckloads of radioactive waste from the old uranium mill site in Tuba City, Arizona, to the Grand Junction storage site, marking our area as a nuclear dump site for out-of-state entities.

Looking at these uranium activities, we see there have been no uranium jobs in this area for over 30 years except a few in reclamation. Socio-economic data gathered in the Sonoran Institute Study for Gateway Canyons Resort and the Powers report done on behalf of Sheep Mountain Alliance document that the “economy” of this area has moved on in the past 30 years, and that if there was a resurgence of the uranium industry it would harm the present sustainable economic developments and possibilities of future investments.  

These and other hydrologic and geologic documents will now be able to be introduced for consideration at the CDPHE formal hearing.

In other Piñon Ridge uranium mill news, Energy Fuels acquired all of Denison Mines Corporation’s (a Canadian firm) U. S. assets for stock. Those assets include not only the only uranium mill operating in the U.S. (the White Mesa mill in Blanding, Utah) but also the Beaver, Pandora and Daneros uranium mines on the Colorado Plateau, and the Arizona 1 mine.  Canadian investment media reports that Denison shareholders, led mostly by the Korean Electric Power Corporation, will own two-thirds of Energy Fuels. The same report described Denison’s U. S. assets as “poison pills”.

Dealing with our 70 year old radioactive WASTE web has become our regional legacy…it is not a legacy of hundreds of stable jobs, wealth, or strong, sustainable economies and communities.  We have not seen evidence yet of processes that honor our new regulations.  A healthier future could be created and many “uranium” jobs would be available if the mines would be rehabilitated and placed in “reserve”, and the mill waters be cleaned so they would not collectively contribute heavy radioactive metals into the waters of the Dolores, San Miguel and Colorado Rivers.

As US and Colorado citizens who become in perpetuity financially and ethically responsible for the nuclear sites already in our area and those that might be created, we must insist on citizen involvement in the regulatory processes so we can work toward: reasonable bonding rates; a continued ban on alternate feeds at the proposed mill, which could lead to more highly radioactive wastes into our storage sites; and the important consideration of cumulative socio-economic impacts and the health, environmental and economic dangers they present.

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