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West End Re-emerges From the Last Uranium Bust Print

By Amy Levek
The Telluride Watch
November 16, 2007

GATEWAY, Colo., Nov. 16, 11:45 a.m. – Up John Brown Canyon through piñon and juniper forests, the winding dirt road crests near the Utah/Colorado border, and the access road to one of the nation’s uranium jackpots veers off onto a high mesa. From its commanding perch above the town of Gateway and the Uncompahgre Plateau, the proposed Whirlwind Mine is set to produce up to 200 tons of ore per day when fully operational.

If the proposal from Energy Fuels Resources Corporation is successful, this snaking back road will soon be the route of semi trucks hauling uranium ore to the mill, up to 40 roundtrips per week. The trucks will file through the Dolores Canyon along the Uncompahgre-Uniweep Scenic Byway, either to the proposed site of the Piñon Ridge Mill development outside of Naturita or to the only uranium mill currently operating in the U.S., the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah.

Seeking a Whirlwind Permit

Energy Fuels Resources Corporation, a Canadian company with offices in Lakewood, Colo., pulled together a number of mining claims and an existing underground mine to create the Whirlwind Mine. “The mine was developed in 1979 by Union Carbide, but it was shut down when uranium prices dropped,” explained George Glasier, president and CEO of Energy Fuels.

According to Glasier, Whirlwind is “in very good condition,” with an access grade tunnel sloping 3,000 feet down to the ore body. With a limited permit in hand, they are working to refurbish the tunnel, and Glasier expects to start mine construction next year. “Production will ramp up slowly,” he explained.

Energy Fuels also intends to build a new mill in the Paradox Valley, some 40 miles away as the crow flies. The Piñon Ridge Mill would be the first new uranium mill to be constructed in the U.S. in 25 years.

The BLM is in the scoping process for a Whirlwind permit. As of mid-October when the public comment period ended only eight written comments had been submitted by concerned citizens. Their opinions were divided on the subject of the proposed mine, ranging from concerns about environmental impacts to enthusiasm about positive economic impacts from enhanced job opportunities.

“They’re just getting started in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process,” which takes about a year, according to Melody Lloyd, BLM public affairs officer in the Grand Junction office. “It’s not an overnight process, and our decision doesn’t stand alone,” explains Lloyd, ticking off a number of state and county permits the operation will have to satisfy.

For instance, Mesa County is reviewing a Conditional Use application, which examines the number of trucks, haul routes and environmental impacts from the proposed mine, among other things. However, because the mine is on federal land, the county, like others in Colorado, defers to the BLM’s ultimate decision on whether or not the mine can operate.

Counties find themselves hamstrung by state and federal preemption, having to defer to those agencies to represent their concerns about mining operations. “A lot of the activity now is on state and BLM land,” says Steve White, Montrose County planning director. “The county does not have jurisdiction on federal lands and no land use permit is required.”

That’s what worries Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC) and a lot of citizens. CEC is actively involved in both county and BLM review of the Whirlwind Mine. “No federal agencies are looking at the cumulative impacts on recreation, water and the aquifer at the Whirlwind. How will it affect the communities around it, and the community at large?” worried Chad Kennard of CEC. “We’re still cleaning up uranium tailings from the last time around where the taxpayers had to pick up the tab.”

Other Canadian Companies

Down the road from the Whirlwind project, Bluerock Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia, intends to develop the Cone Mountain Uranium project. Just last week, Bluerock announced that it also plans to begin drilling at the J-Bird Uranium Mine in Montrose County.

According to the company’s website, “The J-Bird Uranium Mine Project is permitted for mining operations with both the state and BLM offices, and this fact has allowed the company to initiate underground development of the J-Bird Uranium Mine toward uranium production in a rapid time frame.” Bluerock plans to begin development on the J-Bird by mid-November.

Bluerock is capitalizing on rising uranium prices and stocks by casting its net wide. As President Michael Collins commented: "The J-Bird Uranium Mine is the first of Bluerock's four fast-tracked Uravan Mining District Uranium projects to begin operations, and represents a key step in the company's near-term production strategy. The company continues to work to return the Tramp Uranium Mine to production and to permit the Sunbeam and Cone Mountain Uranium projects towards production."

In San Miguel County, too, uranium mines are being reactivated. The Sunday Mine Complex in sparsely populated Big Gypsum Valley is producing ore. Owned and operated by Denison Mines of Canada, the complex includes a group of 168 unpatented lode mining claims on BLM land. Denison Mines also owns the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah. Several General Atomics-owned Cotter Corporation mines have been permitted, but are not yet operating.

Transportation Concerns

With uranium mines opening again and companies jostling to build new mines throughout western Colorado and eastern Utah, reducing hauling costs, one of the major operational costs, is an area of major concern to uranium mining companies.

Transporting uranium is also of major concern to the San Miguel County Commissioners, who recently approved an expansion to the Sunday Complex’s Conditional Use Permit, but not without some consternation about potential truck traffic and liability issues should there be any accidents or spillage.

But as County Planning Director Mike Rozycki reminded the public and commissioners at the beginning of the meeting, regarding the discussion of “conditional use on federal land, the County Attorney has advised that the review does not involve approving or denying the application, but reviewing and applying reasonable conditions on mining and hauling.”

The San Miguel County Commissioners have expressed their opinions about uranium mining before. Their position in an August 2006 letter on the Department of Energy’s proposal to open up 27,000 acres in San Miguel and nearby counties to uranium mining was markedly chilly. The letter indicated that “the county believes the very activity of mining for uranium is ecologically unwise, unhealthy to humans and unsustainable.” The commissioners’ “first preference” was for the Department of Energy to “withdraw all its uranium tracts into inactive status and hold them in reserve until a solution can be found to the problem of radioactive waste disposal/storage.”

Building Economic Muscle

Towns in the Uravan Mineral Belt have been sleepy since the last uranium boom ended some 25 years ago, but that’s gradually changing. With the upsurge in oil and gas exploration and development in recent years and the current interest in uranium, the landscape, economic and otherwise, could be about to change drastically. As the price of uranium, now $93 per pound, continues to creep up, interest in harvesting the area’s mineral reserves is only likely to increase.

According to Denison Mining Company’s President of Operations Ron Hochstein, the economic benefits from the Sunday Mine are “significant.” Between contractors hauling and doing other work, and the company employees in the West End, Hochstein maintained, “it (uranium mining) will have a huge economic impact.

“As the mines continue to ramp up, we will need more employees, which could benefit communities all the way to Norwood.” Hochstein, who is looking at another potential mine in San Miguel County, said that, along with the Sunday Complex, they could operate several shifts a day, possibly 24 hours a day. “The total employment, county wide, including contractors, could reach 250,” said Hochstein.

The prospects of additional jobs close to home and new sources of tax revenues has communities like Nucla and Naturita eager to see uranium mining come back. They welcome the new boom.

As Nucla Mayor Roxy Allex said, “For areas as economically depressed as these, it’s major.” She acknowledged that “there will be a big influx for this town of 735,” but believes they’re prepared for it. For example, a recent $495,000 grant from the Colorado Division of Local Affairs will enable the town to repair its failing waterlines. “We’re already seeing the benefits,” Allex reasoned. And with their water plant at 10 percent capacity, “built with the future in mind,” Allex is confident the town is ready “for a lot of growth.” Reflecting on Nucla’s energy future, Allex declared, “I’m encouraged; I think things are really looking up.”

Impact on Workers’ Health

However good the future may be looking, past uranium booms also left a trail of damaged lives and decimated land in their wakes. Miners working underground suffered a plethora of lung ailments so damaging that the federal government finally established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in the early 1990s to compensate workers and their families for their suffering.

Much of the evidence that convinced Congress to pass the act came from Grand Junction, where hospitals were seeing a slew of lung cancers, emphysema and other illnesses afflicting uranium miners. One Junction doctor, the legendary Dr. Geno Saccamanno, developed a test that enabled quick and easy diagnosis of mine-related lung disease.

Both industry representatives and radiation health care workers agree that today’s mining operations are safer, provided they operate properly. “The industry didn’t understand radon before,” said Hochstein. “Our ventilation requirements are significantly higher, not just for radon, but for diesel fumes as well. We’re moving more air now.”

Glasier agreed. “Ventilation is better. It sounds like a hurricane. It gets rid of the radon for the safety of the miners.” The equipment, too, is a lot cleaner, he said, with a lot less emissions in the enclosed underground spaces.

Jean Moores, who lives about 10 miles from Gateway, has lived all of her 76 years near the former mines. Moores’ husband, a miner, succumbed to work-related lung cancer. Her brother also worked in the uranium industry and died from lung ailments. However, her approval of uranium mining, with its new ventilation and emissions technologies, remains unshaken. “I see no harm, as long as there is air in the mines,” she said, adding that the diesel smoke was more harmful to workers than the radon.

Environmental Fallout

The environmental legacy of the town of Uravan, site of Union Carbide’s uranium mill, demonstrates how mismanaged boom and bust can leave a place with no viable future. Declared a superfund site by the federal government in 1986, no trace of the once bustling community remains.

People in the area are well aware of the massive cleanup efforts just down the San Miguel River from Naturita, a process that took 15 years and $70 million in federal government money and left nothing to suggest there even was once a town of 800 people there.

Will mining be safer this time around?

“I’m uncertain,” said Teresa Coons, a fourth generation Coloradoan and the senior scientist for the Saccomanno Research Institute in Grand Junction. “The regulations are certainly tighter.” Coons, who directs the scientific research programs associated with St. Mary’s Hospital, also runs a medical screening program for former uranium industry workers, serves on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Grand Junction City Council, and has spent years working with and observing the effects of uranium mining on people and their communities.

She takes a larger perspective, wondering where uranium fits in on an international level. “It will depend on the world market and also on our domestic energy policy,” she explained. With an international demand for uranium driven by China’s burgeoning nuclear power industry and Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy, the demand for uranium is strong and growing.

What especially worries Coons is how our national energy policy will impact local communities. Questions about what we need to support our lifestyle and where the impacts will be felt to supply those needs abound. She believes “any energy source has risks and benefits.”

“I’m less concerned about risk at the worker level because we know how to control it. But will we?” she wondered. “At the community level, we still have mill waste and we have to be concerned about what we do with it. There’s still a policy debate needed – how do we make these decisions, and in whose backyard?”

Coons also believes people are more educated now, having both the information and experience to make good decisions. “But it takes a concerted effort and engagement, not just headlines and sound bites to determine where uranium fits in.”

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