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Drilling for uranium gets cleared Print

by R. Scott Rappold
The Colorado Springs Gazette
June 10, 2008

Conditional permit allows 800 exploration holes; many oppose it

Fremont County officials have cleared the way for an Australian company to drill for the nuclear fuel uranium in the northwest part of the county.

County commissioners voted 3-0 Monday to approve a conditional permit for Black Range Minerals to drill 800 exploration holes on 8,169 acres in the Tallahassee Creek area.

Black Range is working with the county on conditions to minimize the impact on neighbors, and the company would need additional approvals to begin mining.

The area was explored in the 1970s, the last time uranium prices were high, but much of the land has since been sold as lots for vacation and retirement homes. A rebound of nuclear power has spiked uranium prices to $70 a pound - up tenfold from five years ago.

Many residents oppose the exploration, fearing its impact on water, roads and the rural quality of life. An eighthour hearing last month drew hundreds of people and more than 70 speakers, split nearly evenly for and against the project. Supporters included some in the mining industry and families who own property slated for exploration, touting the potential economic benefits of mining.

Jim Hawklee, president of Tallahassee Area Community Inc., the opposition group, said the approval could lead to more exploration in the area. Several other companies hold mineral rights to thousands more acres with possible uranium.

The group is considering legal action to stop the drilling, he said.

"We as a community are going to push forward until there's a resolution one way or another," he said after Monday's vote. "Either this is going to be a residential district or it is going to be a uranium mining district. There is no in-between."

Commissioners, though, said they had to consider the criteria for the permit and the property rights of the two ranch owners who have agreements with Black Range.

"From the criteria standpoint, I think we can make the argument that they presented their case," Commissioner Ed Norden said.

Under the terms of Monday's approval, Black Range must limit its hours of drilling; document its water source for drilling; hire an independent hydrologist to assess the impact on groundwater; have a geologist or hydrologist on hand when each bore hole is sealed; and improve roads if truck traffic increases.

Norden said the conditions, plus the fact the drilling is proposed in the middle of the property, will help ease residents' concerns.

"That area has long been ranching and mining, even though it's got some residential growth," Norden said. "The buffer zone, I think, should address some of their concerns, of the noise and lights and hopefully the water as well."

One of residents' main concerns is drilling will cause uranium to seep into their wells. Black Range has offered to monitor residential wells for the presence of uranium, said managing director Michael Haynes

He said the company is committed to keeping residents better informed. Last year, Black Range began exploring for uranium with little notice to neighbors and without getting the required county approval. The county ordered a halt last year.

County Commission chairman Larry Lasha disagrees that Monday's decision will open the door to other companies to drill for uranium.

"Each one will be looked at independently. This one had 8,000 acres of property, a property owner who is doing the reclamation on it," Lasha said.

All three commissioners called the vote a difficult one.

The commissioners are expected to vote on the conditions of approval July 8. Haynes said Black Range could resume operations in July.

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