by Janet Johnson, Grand Junction
Over 20 Western Colorado Congress members traveled to Nucla on November 12 to clearly voice their concerns about the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill. Our group’s comments, which were joined by written comments from dozens of other WCC members, covered many possible negative outcomes which a new uranium mill might have on the health of the people, the environment, air quality, water use and contamination, the present economy, as well as past and future cumulative impacts.
The formal adjudicatory hearing was ordered in June when Denver District Court Judge John McMullen overturned the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE’s) March 2011 approval of Energy Fuels Radioactive Materials license for “not providing the public a fair hearing or opportunity to comment on the proposed mill.” Previously in March, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had also stated that CDPHE did not meet federal requirements for a fair public hearing process. WCC folks from Ridgway, Montrose and Grand Junction stepped up to reinforce the public interest in being involved in this important decision making process.
During the hearing, Energy Fuels officials were questioned by their own attorneys as they defended their application and cross-examined by the attorneys representing Sheep Mountain Alliance and other opponents. Travis Stills, from the Energy and Conservation Law Center in Durango and Jeff Parsons from the Western Mining Action Project on behalf of SMA, carefully analyzed and questioned all aspects of the application but concentrated on the public comment process deficiencies and the inadequacies of the Environmental Review provided by CDPHE.
Also, cross-examining on behalf of Rocky Mountain Wild, Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity, was attorney Matt Sandler. Thomas Power, a retired University of Montana economics professor /private consultant, said the economic impact cited by Energy Fuels “is grossly exaggerated,” considering the depressed and volatile uranium market. That information agreed with geologist Peter Winn’s presentations last summer in which he asserted that the global and national uranium market activity would not predict success for the Energy Fuels proposal.
Energy Fuels had announced earlier in November that it was suspending operations at three of its uranium mines near Moab, Utah, and only processing “waste feeds” at its White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, because of a further decline in uranium prices.
Dennis O’Leary, PhD. and a retired USGS engineer, had stated in his written comments about long term storage that, “A uranium mill produces two things – yellowcake which is profitable to the operators up to 40 years; and tailings, containing up to 85% of original ore radioactivity, which are a public liability for millenniums.” His statement brought the issue of the CDPHE Radiation Division’s ability to effectively guide the permitting process and regulate the proposed mill into focus.
Many objectors cited the Cotter Mill in Cañon City as an example of CDPHE’s regulatory failure and noted CDPHE’s inadequacies in the initial public hearings as an example of trying to approve the permit while disregarding current regulations.
The next step in the hearing process will be for Judge Dana to rule in January on whether a license for the mill should be issued based on the application submitted to the State. The State Court decision required that CDPHE consider Judge Dana’s finding in its final decision to be issued in April 2013.
The proposed mill site is on the Uravan Mineral Belt where more than 1,200 uranium mines were active during the U. S. government nuclear weapons procurement program from 1948 to 1971. This beautiful area experienced “boom and bust” during that time with a uranium and vanadium mining and milling economy. The Nucla / Naturita area has struggled ever since to recover economically.
Our WCC members spoke against a new uranium mill as the answer to sustainable economic growth but we heard the pleas of the folks in the area for help. We can use our voices and organizational strength to promote reclamation of the over 1,200 unattended uranium mines on the UMB – – that would put people to work and create a new beginning for economic growth! Also, we can encourage the civic leaders in our shared region to create healthy possibilities for these folks and their communities and we can provide our support when we see sustainable development opportunities.