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Wyoming Model In Situ Uranium Mine Under Scrutiny for an Alarming Volume of Environmental Violations Print

Powertech Uranium Corporation has never operated an in-situ leach uranium mine or any uranium mine for that matter. As a result, we cannot determine, based on Powertech’s experience and history, whether they can conduct uranium mining operations in northern Colorado without significant impact to our ground water, environment, and health. We can however look to what has been considered Wyoming's "model" in-situ uranium mine, and the only operational uranium facility in the state in recent years, to get a glimpse of what our future might be like with an operating uranium mine. As noted by a recent article in the Casper Star-Tribune and the report below, that mine is under scrutiny by state regulators for what they describe as an alarming volume of environmental violations.

The company that is currently “the only significant producer of uranium in Wyoming” has been issued a wide-ranging Notice of Violation due to its repeated violations of the state’s laws. The company, Power Resources Inc. (PRI), operates “in situ” leach mines at the Smith Ranch and Highland sites near Douglas, WY. “In situ” leach mining involves pumping a solution through uranium deposits that are located in groundwater. The leaching solution loosens the uranium and other heavy metals, which are then pumped to the surface of the ground for further processing.

PRI’s violations include “an inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases,” “serious deficiencies with both permits,” inadequate reclamation, inadequate bonding, and problems with staff. There has been both surface and groundwater pollution with radioactive materials and other substances. Mine site restoration has taken ten years so far -- 2-3 times as long as expected -- and has left groundwater the same quality as when mining ceased.

“The uranium industry keeps saying that they are using new technology, and that modern in situ leach mines are clean and safe,” says CARD representative Jay Davis. “This is a modern mine. It is clearly not clean or safe.”

The Smith Ranch and Highland sites are linked to Powertech Uranium Corporation, which proposes to mine the radioactive mineral in Weld County. According to Powertech’s website and its press statements, the company’s new Vice President of Engineering, John Mays, was Superintendent of Well Field Construction at both the Smith Ranch and Highland sites, and he was Restoration Engineer at the Smith Ranch facility. His father, Wallace Mays, is Powertech’s newly-appointed Chief Operating Officer and was involved in the development of the Highlands mine. The senior Mays was Technical Director of the Highland Mine, according to Lakefield Ventures, where he served as Chairman of the Board in 2006.

Lilias Jarding, a CARD spokesperson, says “The State of Wyoming says it has two large three-ring binders of reports on spills at these mines. Why should Coloradoans trust their precious water resources and livelihoods to the same people involved in the construction and design of these sites?”

For more information on violations at the Smith Ranch/Highland uranium mine and other uranium mines, see Issues at Operating Uranium Mines and Mills - Wyoming, USA provided by the WISE (World Information Service on Energy) Uranium Project. Here is a summary of the problems at the Smith Ranch/Highland uranium mine:

On March 10, 2008, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued a Notice of Violation to Power Resources Inc. (PRI) for failure to conduct concurrent reclamation and to follow approved permits at the Smith Ranch/Highland in situ leach mine:

  • The permit indicates that "An updated schedule will be supplied with the annual report if the mining or restoration schedule varies from Table 3-1." The timetable commitments in the permit are not consistent with wellfield status. Therefore, the table in the annual report is the schedule that PRI is committed to for wellfield status. Based on this table, PRI is not in compliance with their restoration schedules for Wellfields 2, 3, and 4/4A. The annual report text indicates that Wellfield 2 will continue to be in production, while the annual report schedule referred to in the permit shows that it will be in restoration in 2008. Wellfields 3 and 4/4a should be in restoration instead of production.
  • The permit states that it generally takes "three years for uranium production, and three years for aquifer restoration." Actual times for wellfield production and restoration are, thus far, 2-3 times longer than permit commitments.

The Notice of Violation is based on an investigation conducted in 2007. The Investigation Report, dated Nov. 21, 2007, also lists a number of further issues. Here some excerpts:

  • The mine and reclamation plans contained in the permit document are out of date and incomplete in several important areas.
  • PRI's typical wellfield installation procedures result in the near total disturbance of the native vegetation and soils. This is not consistent with the regulation that allows for "minor disturbance" without topsoil stripping.
  • Over the years there have been an inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases at this operation. Some 80 spills have been reported, in addition to numerous pond leaks, well casing failures and excursions. Unfortunately, it appears that such occurrences have become routine.
  • The reclamation cost estimates contained in PRI's annual reports are based on a scenario that is totally infeasible and unsupported by any critical path timeline or water balance. Rough calculations based primarily on PRI's figures reveal an alarming scenario. A realistic reclamation cost estimate for this site would likely be on the order of $150 million, as compared to PRI's current calculation of $38,772,800. PRI is presently bonded for a total of only $38,416,500. No bond adjustments have been made since 2002. Clearly the public is not protected.
  • PRI's environmental efforts have suffered from inadequate staffing, high turnover, lack of institutional memory and a low level of corporate commitment. There has been a lack of continuity and follow-through on many issues. At this point in time, overall environmental compliance at this operation is poor.

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