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New Bill to Provide Environmental Protections for Uranium Mines Print

By Christina Callicott
Telluride Watch
February 4, 2008

Loopholes May Exempt Uravan Mine

WEST END – Northern Colorado legislators introduced HB 1161 to protect Colorado’s water supplies from the effects of uranium mining on Jan. 16. The bill will affect proposed in-situ leach mines in northeast Colorado as well as new and reopened mines associated with the Western Slope’s recent uranium boom.

“We’re on the verge of a new mining boom in Colorado, but it could leave behind a toxic legacy,” said Rep. Randy Fischer (D – Fort Collins). “We need to encourage responsible mining practices and ensure that Colorado’s communities and our waters are protected.”

The bill, co-sponsored in the house by Fischer and Rep. John Kefalas (D-Fort Collins), and in the Senate by Sen. Steve Johnson (R-Fort Collins) and Sen. Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins) comes in the wake of a proposed in-situ uranium leach mine in Weld County, a rural ranching and agricultural county in northeast Colorado. In-situ leach mining involves injecting chemicals into aquifers to force out or leach radioactive uranium ore through the aquifer, according to the legislators’ press release.

The proposed mine has caused an uproar among Weld County citizens, who fear radioactive and toxic contamination of their groundwater. Kefalas has received petitions signed by 7,000 individuals and another 500 businesses and organizations that are concerned about the proposed mine.

“In terms of communications, this is the issue that Randy Fischer and I get the most communications about,” Kefalas said.

The bill would require stringent reclamation standards for in-situ leach mines, requiring mining companies to prove that they will restore groundwater aquifers to their pre-mining quality before companies are allowed to mine. However, it remains unclear whether it is even possible to restore groundwater quality to pre-mine standards.

Kefalas said that Canadian mining firm Powertech, operators of the proposed Weld County mine, “has stated repeatedly that it’s a benign process, but based on our research into other in-situ operations in Texas, Nebraska and Arizona, we see it differently. In Texas, where a mining company claims the groundwater has been fully restored, we can show you how the standards were relaxed to accommodate the company.”

The Weld County mine would be the first commercial in-situ leach mine in Colorado. Colorado’s mining laws include no reference to in-situ mining, according to Jeff Parsons, lawyer for the Western Mining Action Project.

“This technology has demonstrated that it can cause some serious unintended pollution, and that’s not acceptable in Colorado,” Parsons said. “There’s no doubt that reclamation can be very difficult and that the bill would set a high bar. But we’re talking about possible long-term contamination of groundwater. Weld County is one of the most productive ranching and agricultural counties in the country. It doesn’t make sense to risk long term economic development up there for a mine with an expected life span of 10 years.”

HB 1161 would also make all uranium mines subject to stringent reclamation laws passed as a result of the Summittville Mine disaster of the 1990s. Current potential loopholes may exempt some uranium mines from environmental protections. One of these mines is SM-18, a uranium mine situated directly above the San Miguel River at Uravan in West Montrose County. The mine is owned by the Cotter Corporation, a subsidiary of General Atomics. GA’s CEO and Chairman is Neal Blue, with whom Telluride is currently engaged in a dispute over ownership of the Valley Floor.

According to a letter dated Jan. 16, 2008, Cotter Corp. has notified the Colorado Attorney General’s office that it believes SM-18, as well as three other nearby uranium mines, should not be considered a “Designated Mining Operation.” For purposes of the law, a designated mining operation is defined as “a mining operation at which toxic or acid forming materials will be exposed or disturbed as a result of mining operations.”

“Based on the analyses contained in this report,” Cotter Corp.’s letter reads, “Cotter submits that acid mine drainage will not occur as a result of mining operations at the Cotter Mines, and that the Cotter Mines, thus, should not be considered DMOs.”

This letter comes despite tests performed in 2005 showing that toxic drainage from piles of ore and waste rock at the site could exceed applicable water quality standards by 50 times. The SPLP test results for SM-18 show that water drainage into surface or groundwater could contain eight times the acceptable amount of aluminum, 15 times the acceptable amount of lead, 50 times more selenium than allowed, and nine times more uranium than allowed.

The letter from the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology that accompanies the test results clearly states that “the SM-18 mine and other nearby mines with similar mineralogy and host rock characteristics meet the criteria for a designated mining operation.” However, the letter also states that “the SM-18 and other similar nearby mines should be considered designated mining operations, unless the [Mining Land Reclamation] Board determines otherwise.” If Cotter Corp.’s argument is successful it could exempt the four mines from post-Summitville health, safety, and environmental regulations.

“The given track record of uranium mining is a parade of horribles,” Parsons said. “This is just a creative argument by the Cotter Corporation that they should be exempt from the post-Summitville laws.”

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, is concerned about the bill, particularly the fact that industry representatives were not consulted in the crafting of the bill. Kefalas said that legislators have begun the process of meeting with industry representatives.

“If Powertech really believes what they’re saying about [in-situ mining] being environmentally benign, then they shouldn’t be worried about the legislation,” Kefalas said.

HB 1161 has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources.

Representative Ray Rose of Montrose, House Representative for the Telluride region and member of the Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, could not be reached for comment. Rose may be contacted at 303/866-2955.

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