TELLURIDE – With just days to go until a new hearing process is slated to get underway, the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County are poised to enter into a settlement agreement with Energy Fuels and will no longer contest that company’s efforts to acquire a radioactive materials license for the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in Paradox Valley.
The settlement acknowledges the desire of all parties to “avoid the possibility of expensive and protracted litigation” and enables Energy Fuels to move forward with the licensing and commissioning of the Piñon Ridge Facility while purportedly “maintaining and protecting the rights and interests of Telluride and the County, including the health, safety and welfare of the residents of and visitors to San Miguel County.”
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore noted on Wednesday morning this week that there were still “a couple of points that need to be resolved,” regarding the settlement agreement, but that he is “confident it will happen.”
“We are certainly very interested in coming to a settlement and showing we are responsive to the issues of our neighbors,” Moore said.
San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes, meanwhile, hailed the pending settlement agreement as a compromise solution that protects the county from blowing dust, radionuclide deposition, and water quality damage while still allowing a potentially job-creating industry to establish itself in the area.
A number Western Slope residents along with several conservation and social
justice organizations have expressed concerns about the proposed mill, which would be built on a site between the Dolores and San Miguel rivers. Those concerns, according to
the Telluride-based environmental activist group Sheep Mountain Alliance, have included the potential for water contamination from radioactive waste and tailings disposal; air pollutants and emissions; insufficient bonding; socioeconomic issues; health impacts to nearby residents; wildlife; and the amount of water necessary to run the mill.
The settlement agreement addresses many of these concerns. Under the terms of the agreement, Energy Fuels agrees to a number of key concessions, should it acquire the proper licensing to begin uranium mining and milling in the area.
The first of these concessions has to do with the hauling and transportation of hazardous materials. The settlement outlines a long list of shipping standards designed with the intention of protecting the environment and the health of area residents, and demands that trucks hauling radioactive materials must be clearly marked as such while they are within the borders of San Miguel County. Moreover, officials from Telluride and San Miguel County have the right to monitor and/or investigate all trucks for compliance with the State of Colorado’s minimum transportation standards.
Town and county officials also have the right to inspect – at their own expense – all mines located in San Miguel County that are supplying ore to the Piñon Ridge Facility to make sure they meet state, federal and local safety and environmental standards, as well as the proposed Piñon Ridge milling facility, should it become a reality.
Another provision of the settlement agreement has to do with monitoring water quality. Telluride and San Miguel County agree to collect quarterly water samples – again at their own expense – in multiple locations throughout the county to determine background levels of radionuclides (radioactive contaminants) up until the commissioning of the Piñon Ridge Facility. Once the facility is up and running, Energy Fuels and Telluride and/or the county agree to jointly share the expenses of quarterly per year sampling and analysis.
If the measured levels for radionuclide contaminants should spike, the sampling regime will increase in frequency, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) will get involved. The CDPHE Director of Environmental Programs is granted ultimate authority in determining whether the Piñon Ridge Facility or mines supplying ore to the Piñon Ridge Facility are to blame for such a spike in contamination, which could result in temporary suspension of mining and/or milling activities.
For Hilary White, the executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, the power invested in CDPHE as the ultimate arbitrator of potential environmental violations at Piñon Ridge is a big problem. She attended Tuesday’s council meeting to protest the settlement agreement, alluding to other instances across the state where CDPHE has not acted in good faith regarding environmental enforcement issues. “They shouldn’t be depended on in any way to ensure our drinking water and our air is safe for us,” she asserted.
White also expressed a number of other concerns about the settlement agreement, including where the money would come from to pay for the proposed inspections and ongoing water quality monitoring efforts.
Sheep Mountain Alliance filed a lawsuit against CDPHE in February, 2011, after it issued Energy Fuels a license to construct the first uranium processing mill in the United States since 1980. The towns of Telluride and Ophir, Colo. joined the lawsuit as co-plaintiffs in October, 2011.
Sheep Mountain Alliance’s original complaint included 11 claims. In a ruling issued June 13, Judge John McMullen of Denver rejected 10 of those claims, which were related to environmental, health and safety arguments. He ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on Claim One concerning CDPHE’s original approval process, stating that the initial issuance of the radioactive materials license was unlawful because a formal, adjudicatory hearing was not properly provided, and ordered a new process to be held.
This new hearing is slated to begin on Oct. 15. At that time exhibits will be offered for admission and written testimony will be filed in order to provide an opportunity for parties to cross-examine expert witnesses. Public comment will be received in Nucla on Nov. 7.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Telluride and San Miguel County may choose to attend or not attend any and all aspects of the upcoming scheduled public hearing, but will not actively participate in the formal evidentiary part of the proceeding.