by Andrew Villegas
The Greeley Tribune
January 6, 2008
Robin Davis can't help but feel trapped.
She's in a fight for her life, she says, so she's ready to pull out all the stops in trying to get a proposed uranium mine stopped before it even starts.
It's a fight that means constant lobbying of public officials, going to every meeting she can to educate the public and even possible legal action against a mine that hasn't pulled one ounce of uranium out of the ground.
The problem is that deep under Davis' property lay many millions of pounds of uranium, and its price is going through the roof.
But the fight isn't just about money, it's a fight about public safety and groundwater contamination.
Powertech, a Canadian company that wants the uranium and owns the mineral rights on a 5,760-acre ranch near Nunn, says water in nearby wells will be safe, though the site will use in-situ leaching to pull the uranium from sandstone deposits underground.
The leaching method pumps chemically-treated water into the ground and brings it back to the surface with uranium, which is then taken out of the water, concentrated and shipped.
Davis isn't so sure her water will be safe. She pulls water from a well for her horse-boarding business and for domestic use in her home.
She can't sell her 80 acres, she says, because no one wants to live near a uranium mine, and she has all her savings tied up in her home. If the mine goes in, she won't board other people's horses, and she says she's already lost business because of the mine.
"We have absolutely everything to lose," Davis says. "Our entire investment is in our home, and nobody's buying."
Davis is part of a movement against the mine, Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction, and started a Web site nunnglow.com, to let people know about the mine's potentially hazardous operation.
There are four uranium mines in Colorado, all in Montrose County in southwestern Colorado. One also was recently approved in Mesa County. Residents there fought some of the mines, but they were unsuccessful.
A similar mine was opened near Keota and Grover in Colorado in the early 1980s, but it was closed because the price of uranium dropped, making mining no longer economically viable.
But now that the price of uranium is up to about $90 per pound again from a low of about $7 per pound in 2000, companies are looking to start mining the radioactive material again for use in nuclear power reactors around the United States.
Uranium prices fueling new speculation
At its current price, about $873 million worth of uranium sits at the proposed mine site in northwestern Weld.
Pete Webb, a spokesman for Powertech, said the company is going to apply for the permit to mine at the site from Weld County in December 2008.
The intricate regulatory and permitting process ensures that the mine will be safe for water and the public, he said.
It is Powertech's first foray into uranium mining, but the opposition is fueling public fear about the project, Webb said.
"Because of demand, companies are looking for it," said Webb, adding that 30 new nuclear power plants in the United States fuel the demand. "But because it's uranium, people are basically afraid of it."
"It's not gonna happen, I've seen it stopped before," said Lilias Jones Jarding, an anti-mining activist and Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction member. She worked against a mine in South Dakota that was successfully stopped by opponents, and is running for the state legislature in House District 49, partly because of her frustrations about the uranium mine issue.
Jarding said so many people were against that mine that 12,000 people came to a rally against the mine, which would have been located near the Black Hills.
Further, Jarding said, mines cannot guarantee that they can clean the groundwater to pre-mining levels after the mine is closed. There are 32 sites in Texas where officials found the water was not returned to pre-mining levels, she said.
Uranium problems in Texas
Rick Lowerre is an attorney representing Kleberg County, Texas, in a lawsuit against uranium miner Uranium Resources Inc.
The mine, like all others in Texas, Lowerre said, can't clean the water it pumped into the ground to extract the uranium 20 years ago.
"No uranium mining company in Texas has ever restored groundwater in Texas to levels they promised," he said. "Mining companies knew all along (they couldn't clean the water). Everybody just lied to the public."
Water that is pumped out of the ground contains lead and mercury in addition to uranium, which are then pumped back into the ground to be cleaned later, Lowerre said.
Residents near proposed mines shouldn't let mining companies get away with saying they're going to restore the water, he added.
In addition, many large corporations such as Exxon Mobil have abandoned uranium mining and smaller companies are taking their place, said Lowerre. He added that many smaller companies don't have the capital to absorb price fluctuations in the uranium market and could go bankrupt, leaving state or federal authorities the task of cleaning up.
Powertech will be required to have bonds ensuring that such a cleanup will be funded if it abandons the mine, but Texas doesn't have a bond requirement, Lowerre said.
"If the price goes down, they'll go belly up," he said. "And then you're left with it."
Meanwhile, communities should take steps to ensure that powerful lobbying by uranium mining companies doesn't overshadow safety concerns of the public, Lowerre said.
Moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia
Velma Smith, a manager with the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining in Washington, D.C., said after the bottom fell out of uranium prices in the early 1980s, a group she lobbied with helped get the Virginia Legislature to enact a moratorium on uranium mining in the state. They also drove out a possible uranium mine.
The law, which is still in effect today, says no uranium mining can occur in the state until it can be proven that it is safe.
In many ways, Virginia resident concerns mirror those in northern Colorado. Before the ban, nearby residents there were worried about contamination of the aquifer because many used private wells for water. But a new uranium mine firm this week filed a request for a permit to mine uranium in Virginia, which many say has the richest uranium deposits in the United States.
Studies already under way
Though Powertech is in the beginning of its process to get the mine started, Weld planning officials have already begun studying the site, and will probably make a determination about the mine in 2009.
The Board of Weld County Commissioners will approve or deny the site sometime after the planning commission makes its determination, and then there's always the chance of appeal to Weld District Court and higher.
"I don't know if there's a way to stop it from coming through the permit process," said Tom Honn, Weld director of planning.
The planning department will examine if the use of the site as a mine is compatible with neighboring properties around it, and will make its determination that way, Honn said.
But Bruce Barker, Weld County attorney, said outside of appeals, property owners could file a "private nuisance" lawsuit if they believe their property is being negatively affected by the mine.
Filers of these lawsuits have to provide proof of damage to their property or well-being and that the defendant should have known that damage was likely to occur.
If property will bring these sorts of lawsuits remains to be seen, but Davis, the horse boarder, said she hasn't ruled out taking legal action against Powertech, who has "cut off direct communication" with her.
"We always have that option," Davis said. "But we hope our public representatives will truly protect our public health."
Next meeting on proposed uranium mine near Nunn
Representatives from Powertech Uranium Corp. and Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction will attend a public hearing about the proposed uranium mine near Nunn at 6 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Harmony Library, at the corner of Shields Street and Harmony Road in Fort Collins.