Uranium: Cleanup before Start Up

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Uranium: Cleanup before Start Up

An abandoned uranium mine (AUM) along Hwy 141 is typical of those found across Colorado.  Photo by Emily Hornback.

An abandoned uranium mine (AUM) along Hwy 141 is typical of those found across Colorado. Photo by Emily Hornback.

by Dudley Case, Ridgway, and Emily Hornback, WCC Organizer

As one drives the Scenic Byway 141 from Grand Junction to Nucla and Naturita, winding through the stunning redrock canyons and tracing the path of the Dolores & San Miguel Rivers, you can’t help but be in awe of this iconic western landscape.

What you might not notice as you negotiate the sharp curves and unfenced cattle, are the thousands of abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) that dot the same landscape. You may see one or two tucked high in the cliffs, demarcated by an open hole spilling out tons of dirt and lose rock, but most are just out of sight on top of the plateaus and disguised by the natural rock fall.

While it may be tempting to accept these mines as part of the “historic West,” it is important to remember that these particular mines are low-level radioactive waste piles leftover from the “Uranium Boom” supplying uranium ore for the Cold War. There are over 1,500 thousand of them in Colorado alone, mostly concentrated in the Uravan Mineral District stretching from Mesa to San Miguel Counties.

In fact, there are so many AUMs in this area, that the Dolores and San Miguel watersheds are the most threatened in the country when it comes to proximity to uranium mines. However, there are AUMs all across Colorado, from Steamboat Springs to Cañon City.

Unlike uranium mills, which are governed by the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, there is no specific legislation to address AUMs and only 10% have been reclaimed. Since most of these mines were established under the General Mining Law of 1872, owners were able to walk away from their mess without any plan or funding set aside for cleanup.

This year, the government is taking a step to address this issue. The Department of Energy (DOE) has been mandated to prepare a report on AUMs to present to the US Congress in July of 2014, known as the Abandoned Uranium Mine Report. Over the past year, the DOE Office of Legacy Management has been working with federal agencies, affected states and tribes, and the public to prioritize AUMs for cleanup.

This report will consist of four small reports: (1) Location and Status Report, covering efforts to reclaim and remediate these mines; (2) Cost and Feasibility Report, covering the potential cost and feasibility of mine reclamation or remediation; (3) Risk Report, covering the extent to which these mines have posed or may pose a radiation health hazard to the public, and degradation of water quality and the environment; and (4) Prioritization Report, covering the priority ranking for reclamation or remediation at these mines.

Once the complete report is released in July, WCC’s Uranium Committee will be reviewing the information, strategizing on how to address issues identified, and continuing to push the DOE to cleanup old mines before permitting new ones!

Additional information about the Abandoned Uranium Mines Report to Congress is available on the following Department of Energy website.  If you have any questions or would like to send additional information to the Department of Energy, please e-mail AUM@lm.doe.gov.

For more info about WCC’s “Cleanup Before Start Up Campaign,” please contact Emily Hornback at emily(at)wccongress.org, 970-256-7560

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