Drilling firm given a less-than-glowing welcome
By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News
May 14, 2007
When the letters arrived in the mail last fall, they came as the oddest kind of surprise to the horse-and-livestock types in the wide-open country of western Weld County.
They announced that a company called Powertech (USA) Inc. owned mineral rights under more than 5,700 acres - including the properties of those receiving the notice - and planned to begin mining uranium in the area.
Robin Davis' 80 acres near Wellington is among the 5,700 acres where Powertech plans to mine for uranium. Davis, pictured last week with her horse Auris, opposes the project. "The aquifer we're sitting on runs through Sterling, Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Greeley - there's 27,000 (agricultural) wells on it," she says.
When Daryl Burkhart received his letter in October, he was unimpressed. "Yeah, OK," he said, and forgot about it.
But the uranium miners didn't forget about him.
"This fellow drove into our yard around Christmas. He was telling me they're out here, they're going to be considering drilling for uranium," Burkhart recalled. "That's when I knew this was probably going to be happening."
In the months since, opponents of the proposal have banded together to fight what they see as a threat to their water by a company using a technology that has created contamination problems elsewhere.
Powertech, riding the red-hot uranium market, wants to pull the radioactive metal from 600 feet below the earth, but without using the typical mining tools - earthmovers, haul trucks and industrial-sized shovels.
Instead, the company wants to poke hundreds of holes into the ground, push water deep into it, leach the uranium out of the ore, draw it back up to the surface and sort it out there.
Called "in-situ" mining, the technique is advertised as far less destructive and disruptive than conventional mining.
As described in the letter to property owners, the technique has "evolved to the point where it is a controllable, safe and environmentally benign method of mining, which can operate under strict environmental controls."
But some locals don't buy it.
"This process has proven itself over and over again . . . to contaminate the aquifer," said Robin Davis, a horse trainer living on 80 acres in the project area. "The aquifer we're sitting on runs through Sterling, Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Greeley - there's 27,000 (agricultural) wells on it."
Critics worry that the process will free up not only uranium, but other radioactive elements, such as thorium and radium, and toxic metals, such as lead and cadmium, that could escape the underground deposit and contaminate groundwater.
The mining technique also could liberate radon gas, which could rise to the surface through the wells and pose a health risk, residents say.
Then there's the need to dispose of the waste that comes to the surface with the uranium.
"They tell us we are safe and this process will do no harm to any of us," writes Davis, on a mining watchdog Web site called See Nunn Glow (nunnglow.com), a reference to the small Weld County community of Nunn near the proposed project. "I disagree."
She cites the risk of spills or leaks and the resulting threat to the environment.
"Bottom line is this: If you eat and drink and breathe, you are affected by this issue. . . . Your food supply is threatened, your clean air is threatened and your drinking water is threatened."
Another 'gold rush'
Uranium mining isn't new to Colorado, which ranks third among states for its uranium reserves, behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Uranium mines and milling plants dating from the World War II era dot the Western Slope. Regulators have spent decades cleaning up old uranium operations.
Currently, 32 sites have active permits for uranium mining, according to the state's Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, all but one of them west of the Continental Divide. The only active Front Range site is in Jefferson County.
Many see a new gold rush for the metal as nuclear power mounts a comeback in places such as China and India, where accelerating economies need new energy sources. The market for uranium has soared in recent years, with prices rising from $7 per pound in 2000 to $30 in 2005 to $60 in late 2006 to $120 this month.
"I think the bigger issue is that there was, over the last 25 years, a stockpile of uranium that has now been exhausted," said Ron Cattany, director of the state's mining division. "And the (2005) energy bill (passed by Congress) provides some incentives for nuclear power. I think it's a combination . . . that has created the renewed interest in Colorado" uranium stores.
Newly formed Powertech boarded the uranium train in 2005 and, according to its Web site, has two "advanced stage" projects with uranium resources of more than 17 million pounds.
One of those is in South Dakota. The other is the Weld County site, known as the Centennial project. The company said it also has two "exploration" projects, both in Wyoming.
Richard Blubaugh, the company's vice president for environmental health and safety, has called the chances of contamination "vanishingly small."
He said the company believes it can do the work safely "because it's been done safely, and we have people in the company who have done it and know what it takes."
Blubaugh concedes there have been problems internationally with the technique, but he blames those on the use of acids to liberate the uranium, which also mobilizes other contaminants. His firm, he said, would use far more benign chemistry to free the uranium.
"Forget (problems around the world). Look at the United States and what is allowed here," Blubaugh said. "The technology we're talking about, to my knowledge, hasn't created a problem with any known drinking water supply.
"It's been used in this country for 30 years. The regulatory agencies wouldn't be licensing these things if groundwater contamination was inevitable."
But "in-situ" uranium mining in the U.S. hasn't been without controversy.
Southeast of San Antonio, the Uranium Energy Corp. has drawn scrutiny from residents who complain that drilling activities have left dirt and sand in their water.
The state also has cited the company for numerous instances of failing to follow its permit process, news reports show.
A company official said the firm is working to correct the problems and is "dedicated" to doing it right. The company also has told the media that there has been no mixing of uranium with drinking water.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation, which covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, voted to ban all uranium mining, including in-situ. The region's 17 million acres contains enormous stores of uranium, but Navajos blame decades of mining for a legacy of radiation sickness and other mining-related illnesses.
Though the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees that in-situ mining is less damaging than conventional mining, the technique "still tends to contaminate the groundwater," according to an abstract of an NRC report on the issue published in January.
Because of that, the report said, the NRC - or its designated regulator at the state level - requires that companies set aside sufficient funds to cover any cleanup necessary.
In Colorado, Powertech has yet to submit an application to regulators, but Blubaugh said it likely will do so by the end of 2008, with the hope it could begin work by sometime in 2009.
But government environmental officials, aware of the project, already are gearing up to handle its review. So complex is the web of regulatory agencies involved that officials at the state Department of Public Health and Environment met this week with officials within the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to sort out who is responsible for what.
In all, at least two divisions of the health department, the state's mining office and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will have a role. County planners and Weld County health officials also will have a say.
Blubaugh said the many agencies involved is more evidence the company plans to do things properly.
"We believe with all those agencies, all those people telling us how to do it right, we're going to do it right," he said.
Burkhart sure hopes so, but has his doubts.
"If they have accidents and don't monitor the wells very well, (contaminants) could go into our water and into our aquifer," he said.
"This is our drinking water, our water for irrigating crops, for livestock. Our water is so precious like it is."