A Fight in Colorado over Uranium Mines
April 19, 2013
vDan Frosch / New York Times News Service
The Burros uranium mine near the Dolores River, background, in Slick Rock, Colo., March 22, 2013. Most uranium mines in Colorado have been out of operation for decades, but some miners hope the price of uranium will recover. Environmental watchdogs say it's time to reclaim the land and get the companies to clean it up.
SLICK ROCK, Colo. (April 18. 2013) -- The Dolores River bends through southwestern Colorado like a gooseneck, shaded by red rock canyons that leave those who pass through here breathless.
Hidden from the riverbanks, behind cottonwoods and mule deer tracks, are different, artificial formations. Off a nearby road, an aging tower marks the property of the Burros Mine, partly owned by state Rep. Don Coram. Heaps of rocks tinged with the greenish hue of uranium are visible. Abandoned mining equipment lies strewn about. A darkened portal is gated shut. Downstream, another mine, owned by the Cotter Corp., lies similarly silent.
Despite bursts of activity from 2003 through 2008, most uranium mines scattered across Colorado have largely been out of production for decades, a testament to fluctuating mineral prices. Now the future of these mines is at the crux of a dispute that could set a precedent for how they are handled.
Environmental groups in Colorado contend that many of the state's 33 uranium mines should be forced to clean up, given that uranium mining, which flourished here during the Cold War, has gone dormant. In legal filings, they have alleged that companies like Cotter are skirting potential costs associated with cleanup, which is required by the state after an operation shuts down.
The environmental groups say the companies should be prohibited from obtaining state-issued exemptions, under which the companies do not have to produce but are not obligated to restore the land, either.
Letting the mines idle heightens the risk of contaminating treasured areas like the Dolores with radioactive substances like uranium and radon, the groups argue. At a hearing Wednesday, Colorado's mining board will review the environmental groups' objections.
The dispute cuts especially deep in the West, where abandoned uranium mines pock the region and have cost the federal government millions to reclaim.
“State law says that you should be either mining the land or you should be reclaiming the land so it can released for other uses,” said Travis Stills, a lawyer with the Energy Minerals Law Center, which represents the Information Network for Responsible Mining, a Colorado watchdog group that goes by the acronym Inform. “But you can't just go out and occupy the land for decades while doing essentially nothing, except be an ongoing source of pollution.”
Over the last two months, the minerals law group has filed objections with Colorado's mining board over seven uranium mines that recently filed for the exemptions, known as “temporary cessation” permits.
The permits allow mines to stop production for five years without closing, and are intended to consider the nexus between mining activity and mineral prices. Operators can reapply, but production cannot be halted for more than a decade. A mine must eventually show activity or shut down and restore the land it used.
In their objections, the environmental groups note that the mines in question, in all but one case, exceeded the 10-year limit years ago, and have merely applied for additional permits.
The groups filed several more objections Tuesday over Coram's Gold Eagle Mining company, which has applied for the extensions on four mines.
“We feel these mines are doing everything they can not to reclaim,” said Jennifer Thurston, Inform's executive director. “These are sites where there's a great potential for radioactive contamination. They shouldn't be just casual operations.”
In response, Colorado's Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, part of the Natural Resources Department, said that many of the mines are legally still eligible for temporary cessation. An attorney for the division, Julie Murphy, wrote that state law restricts the permits to 10 consecutive years, not 10 years total.
Cotter's mines, for example, had reached their limit in the early 1990s. But Murphy noted that the mines had since switched “to intermittent status,” allowing them to stay open with minimal activity, remaining eligible for a third exemption.
Officials with Cotter or its parent company, General Atomics, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But the company has defended its operations in legal filings.
“Inform seeks to permanently close the mines as if they have no value, are unregulated by the division and were abandoned long ago by their owner,” wrote Robert Tuchman, a lawyer for Cotter. “Nothing could be more remote from the truth. The mines are of great importance to Cotter.”
Nonetheless, Tony Waldron, minerals program supervisor for the division, said Colorado was “taking a hard look” at when a mining operator needed to shut down and begin reclamation -- the cost of which can range from a few thousand dollars into the millions.
Mining has long been a source of glory and ghosts in Colorado's Uravan mineral belt, especially during the Cold War, before the industry crashed in the 1980s.
As the United States now seeks homegrown energy sources, the uranium industry has shown signs of a resurgence. Beginning in 2009, one company, Energy Fuels, began seeking a license for the first new uranium processing mill in more than three decades, in Colorado's Paradox Valley.
Still, there has been no major uranium ore production in Colorado since 2009, according to state records.
The dispute in Colorado is complicated by a federal injunction that temporarily prohibits all mining activities on 25,000 acres of Energy Department land here, including tracts leased by Cotter and Gold Eagle.
A federal judge ordered the ban in 2011, after the Energy Department moved to extend its leasing program for uranium mining. Judge William Martinez found the government had failed to consider the environmental impacts.
The Energy Department recently drafted a new environmental impact statement, and public hearings are scheduled for this month. Coram said he had already completed reclamation on one of the mines and planned on using the other mines when the timing was right.
But Stills said that granting Gold Eagle's mines and others another five years to avoid reclamation would only increase the risk of contamination.
Both Colorado's mining division and the state's Public Health and Environment Department monitor water quality around mines, which are also subject to inspections. And mines must now present a detailed plan showing how they will stay environmentally compliant.
In 2010, mining inspectors found that uranium from Cotter's closed Schwartzwalder mine contaminated a creek flowing into a local reservoir. The company has agreed to clean up the mine and the creek.
The US Geological Survey is also poised to start researching the potential long-term impacts of uranium mining on wildlife, the environment and humans.
For now, the future of uranium mining here remains murky. Near a ridge named “Last Chance,” uranium mines bought by Energy Fuels in 2012 sit vacant, generators abandoned, wires clawing the air as if searching for signs of life. A company spokesman said it hopes to restart mining as soon as the price of uranium rises again.
But Thurston of Inform said that time has passed. “The uranium boom ended a long time ago, and it hasn't come back all this time,” she said. “I don't understand why we have to wait for the past to be cleaned up.”
(c) 2013 New York Times News Service
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