If the issuance of a radioactive materials license for the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in the Paradox Valley seemed to have signaled the end of its approval process, 2012 signaled its restart.
After the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued the radioactive materials license to the Canadian mining company, Energy Fuels, Inc. in 2011, a Denver judge validated the concerns of the environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance along with the towns of Telluride and Ophir when he ruled in June that a new public hearing must take place. The fight between opponents and proponents of the mill made numerous headlines over the year and is The Watch’s No. 2 story of 2012.
The mill’s opponents received their first victory against the issuance of the radioactive materials license in March when the U.S. Regulatory Commission found that the CDPHE did not meet federal standards during the mill’s application process.
“Basically, what we found was the state did not provide the public a chance to comment on the application, specifically the environmental review, or to allow the public request an adjudicatory hearing,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said on Tuesday. “The state is required to do that under the [Federal] Atomic Energy Act.”
McIntyre went on to say that the NRC would not intervene or overturn the CDPHE’s decision but said the agency expected a written response describing how it intends to move forward with its concerns.
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said the NRC’s finding came as a surprise, especially, he said, since the licensing authority has been delegated to the state of Colorado.
“The bottom line here is the NRC doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the matter,” Moore said. “Letters like this don’t have any bearing on what’s going on in our view. The public was given ample opportunity to comment. The state followed the law. We followed the law. That is our view.”
It was the view of Denver District Court Judge John McMullen in June that another public hearing is necessary for Energy Fuels to acquire a license. McMullen ordered the CDPHE to initiate a new public hearing process that provides an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. Until that process is concluded, Energy Fuels is prohibited from conducting any activities at the proposed mill location.
“There is no longer a license to operate a uranium mill in the state of Colorado,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “Throughout this lengthy review process, we have insisted that the state process should be conducted fairly and that we were denied our rights to a formal public hearing. The court has agreed with us that the review was deficient and unlawful. We look forward to a new review and to exercising our rights to challenge the deeply flawed environmental studies that supported the original license.”
McMullen ordered a new hearing to begin on Oct. 15 where exhibits and written testimony will be filed as well as providing the opportunity for parties to cross-examine expert witnesses. The new form of the public hearing was described as a courtroom trial.
“As I understand it, Energy Fuels will give a presentation and then those who have applied for party status will have the opportunity to give a presentation and cross examine our technical experts,” Moore said. “Energy fuels will also have the opportunity to cross examine witnesses as well.”
Proponents and opponents of the mill squared off once again, this time in Nucla at the Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge in October. For the most part, the evidentiary hearing, which unfolded under the benign gaze of a mounted moosehead with Judicial Arbiter Richard Dana presiding, consisted of technical information, as expert witnesses worked to establish a record of the completeness and adequacy (or lack thereof) of Energy Fuels’ mill application.
“We don’t’ glow in the dark,” Moose member Dan Hammond said. Hammond, like many West Enders, worked in uranium mines for much of his life. His community is comfortable with the industry, he said. It’s true that quite a few of the old-time miners have died. They’ve died of lots of causes, including drinking and smoking, he pointed out. Hammond himself is doing fine.
Others offered a different a different view.
“Everywhere there has been uranium mining and milling, there have been tragic consequences. Nothing is safe. Period,” said Rein Van West of Ouray County.
A decision from Dana is expected sometime this year and while the region awaits his decision, the Town of Telluride in October entered into a settlement agreement with Energy Fuels whereby it will be afforded the right to monitor possible effects of the uranium mill, if is is built, in exchange for withdrawing from the legal fight to have it built.
The decision to enter into the agreement angered some San Miguel County residents and the year closed out with the uranium mill still being one of most contentious issues in Western Colorado – as it will undoubtedly be for some time.