High Country News
October 1, 2007
In northern Colorado, newcomers to the area lead the charge against planned uranium mining
Updated Sept. 28, 2007
Early last year, Robin and Jay Davis bought 80 acres of rolling prairie in north-central Colorado. As is often the case in Western states, the "split estate" property included only the surface rights, not the rights to any minerals that might lie beneath the land. So before they signed the deal, the couple carefully researched potential mineral development. "We looked into oil, gas and coal," Robin Davis says. "Even diamonds." Deciding that the risk was negligible, they bought the land, planning to board horses and open a riding school.
Then, last fall, a Canadian-owned energy company informed the Davises and their neighbors that it wanted to extract not coal or natural gas, but uranium from beneath their property. "When we got a letter about it, we thought it was a joke," Robin Davis says. "Uranium mining? Here? Yeah, right."
But Powertech (USA) Inc. is serious. The company recently bought 5,760 acres of mineral rights near the high-tech mecca of Fort Collins. Powertech hopes to extract about 8 million pounds of uranium, worth nearly $700 million at current market prices, mostly through in-situ recovery, which involves injecting a solution underground to dissolve uranium.
In-situ uranium projects are on tap for other places in the West as well, including New Mexico, and Powertech is exploring for uranium in South Dakota and Wyoming. But in many ways, Powertech’s Colorado proposal is different. The West’s uranium mining has historically taken place in sparsely settled deserts, not near booming urban centers. Affected residents have been mostly poor and rural, and opposition has often been slow to develop. About 300,000 people live within 30 miles of Powertech’s proposed operations; Weld County, in which the project is located, is one of the 50 fastest-growing counties in the nation. Universities and computer companies in Fort Collins and nearby Greeley have attracted well-educated academics and scientists, some of whom own homes and land near the project site, and they’ve organized a robust grassroots resistance.
Their biggest fear? Contamination of the area’s groundwater. Powertech plans to drill deep into an aquifer that supplies local homes and farms. In-situ processing, say critics, could do more than just ravage the surface of the land: It could permanently taint groundwater with heavy metals and radioactivity. "We can live without a lot of things," says Robin Davis, "but water is not one of them."
The countryside around Powertech’s planned operation is mostly shortgrass prairie, dotted with sagebrush and golden blooms of rabbitbrush. Swainson’s hawks soar overhead; meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds perch on fenceposts. A few old farmhouses stand amid corn and wheat fields, but most of the homes are new, tidy and moderately sized, on 40- to 80-acre plots. The occasional fencerow, house or pickup sports a bright yellow sign with a black radiation symbol and the words "No Uranium Mining in Colorado. www.nunnglow.com." (The closest town is the farming hamlet of Nunn, whose water tower displays the slogan "Watch Nunn Grow." Opponents have suggested changing the last word to "Glow.")
Powertech’s project would be the first use of in-situ extraction techniques in Colorado, beyond a few tests in the 1970s, and the state is scrambling to get up to speed before Powertech submits permit applications in late 2008.