MONTROSE – With the economy in crisis and President Bush slated to address the American people, only about 30 members of the public – maybe a third of what organizers expected, given the number of empty seats – showed up at the Uranium Recovery Forum in Montrose on Wednesday night, Sept. 24. Nevertheless, attendees including Jack Lee and Marie Moore of Paradox; John Metcalf of Saving Paradox.org; Montrose County Commissioner Bill Patterson and San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes were treated to an informative presentation on the licensing procedure for a uranium-processing facility, as well as some candid face-time with three scientists from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment who are responsible for licensing and oversight of radioactive facilities of all kinds.
The impetus behind the forum was the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, which Canadian mining company Energy Fuels Inc. would like to build at a site just east of Bedrock in the center of Paradox Valley in western Montrose County. Energy Fuels is currently collecting a year’s worth of baseline data on the proposed mill site, as required in the license application, and has not yet submitted a formal application to the CDPHE.
However, when the company does submit an application, the clock starts ticking on a series of meetings, public hearings and decision deadlines that will lead to a draft decision and, likely in this case, a series of appeals. At least two public hearings are required, though the CDPHE has promised to hold more. In addition to granting or denying a county-level special use permit, Montrose County Commissioners are also formally requested to review and comment on the final mill proposal, with Energy Fuels providing the county up to $50,000 to run pertinent tests and studies on which to make their decision.
Presenters emphasized that input from both the public and local governments is needed to make the decision about whether or not to license a facility and if so, what requirements to impose upon that facility.
“We’re very good on the science, but we don’t live here,” said one presenter.
The facility application must include information on economic and social impacts of the mill alongside technical information on the site, environmental and worker safety, facility plans and decommissioning; a final document is required to describe what issues were raised during the public process, and how they were addressed in the licensing process.
“These are big decisions and we need your input,” said Steve Tarlton, team leader for the CDPHE’s Radiation Management Unit. With the tight timeline, he emphasized, “we’ll be under the gun, but we will take comments verbally, written or by email. The earlier we get them, the easier it will be for them to affect the process,” he added.
Ralph Egidi, a scientist with the unit, later confirmed that social and economic impacts are equally weighted with more technical considerations such as site characteristics and facility design.
“We follow the law, and we have very good laws,” said Egidi (who is also a disc jockey at Paonia’s public radio station KVNF). “Our law here in Colorado is really designed to give a lot of weight to public input. We put social and economic considerations on the same level as technical data,” he said, adding that the state law governing licensing of facilities such as Piñon Ridge “is the most stakeholder-driven law in the country.”
As an example, Egidi described a recent situation in Cañon City, site of the embattled (and currently non-operational) Cotter Corporation uranium mill. A radioactive waste dump had been proposed in the area to accept what Egidi said was the equivalent of “yard dirt.” City residents complained loudly that the dump would harm tourism (the Cotter mill and nearby high-security prison complexes notwithstanding), and the proposal was denied.
CDPHE representatives spent a good portion of the evening discussing lessons learned from past mistakes regarding oversight, decommissioning and cleanup of old mines and mills. An oft-cited example was the former town of Uravan, where a century-old complex of uranium mines and mills operated long before the adverse health effects of radiation (not to mention environmental impacts) were understood. Situated in west Montrose County alongside the San Miguel River, the site was, by all accounts, an environmental disaster, with severe radioactive and heavy-metal pollution of ground and surface water as well as air and soils. Cleanup of the Superfund site cost over $120 million and took 20 years; the project’s completion is expected to be announced this week.
Egidi described a scenario that is “classic in the mining industry. By the time you’re done running the mill, either you’re out of ore or you’re out of money, and it’s awfully hard to come up with money to clean up the site.” He cited the Atlas Mill, built on the banks of the Colorado River just outside Moab, Utah. Rather than providing bonds or other financial securities for future cleanup of their site once it was decommissioned, the company signed an agreement saying that they would instead put the money directly into cleanup. However, the company proceeded to go bankrupt, “and you and I as taxpayers paid for that cleanup.”
Egidi said that nowadays, financial sureties such as bonds or certificates of deposit are required for the creation of two types of funds: one for the decommissioning and cleanup of the site, and one for its long-term maintenance, performed by the US Department of Energy. For the first, funds must be secured based on third-party cleanup of the site given the worst-case scenario. For the second, a total of $1 million is required as seed money for 1,000 years of site maintenance.
It was this second provision that drew the sharpest criticism from Commissioner Goodtimes. Though San Miguel County has no regulatory jurisdiction over Paradox Valley, the area is located within the San Miguel watershed, and Goodtimes said the Montrose commissioners have been generous enough to grant San Miguel County the chance to review and comment on the mill proposal.
During the question and answer period, Goodtimes grilled Tarlton and Egidi on the radioactive half-life of uranium tailings (“in the thousands of years,” Tarlton replied) and the adequacy of the $1 million, 1,000-year long-term-care provision. According to the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, uranium-238, the most prevalent isotope in uranium ore, has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, while that of thorium-230 and radium-226, the main radioactive components in uranium tailings, are about 75,000 years and 1,600 years respectively.
“So,” Goodtimes asked, what about “after the 1,000 years, when the site is still radioactive and hot?”
“One of the things we have to look at is that there’s an incomplete understanding of what’s going to happen in 1,000 years,” Tarlton countered. “So the best thing you can do is set aside this money.”
“As environmental restoration people and environmental scientists, we know you never get a site 100 percent cleaned up,” Egidi said. “We have a compliance requirement of 1,000 years. We can only engineer something for so long. Everything can’t be the pyramids.”
Goodtimes also asked if the company is required to pay any mineral monies or production fees to the local or county coffers.
“We don’t have a requirement for that, though counties might be able to pass ordinances for that,” Tarlton answered.
After the meeting, Goodtimes told The Watch that, contrary to his experience fighting a mill in Dry Creek Basin 30 years ago, what he heard at Wednesday night’s forum was “much improved; a lot of good things have happened. Within the framework of a regulatory environment, we have as good a process as you can get.
“That said, I’d like to know what’s the hidden subsidy behind the uranium industry? There are long-term risks that aren’t being planned for. These sites are toxic for hundreds of thousands of years; we need to weigh the short-term benefits with the long-term impacts.”
Goodtimes also commented on Energy Fuels’ choice of a site for their facility. “Paradox Valley is a collapsed salt dome,” Goodtimes said, describing the area’s unique geology. “As we know from the work done at Yucca Mountain in Nevada,” an area proposed for a high-level radioactive waste dump, “salt is always moving,” suggesting that the instability of the underground salt formation raises too many questions about the site’s appropriateness for long-term storage and confinement of hazardous waste. “It’s too big of a risk at this point in time. I think San Miguel County would have serious concerns about what we’re doing to the watershed there.”
The CDPHE expects to receive an application from Energy Fuels by spring 2009, and once the agency determines that the application is complete, the clock will start ticking for public input and regulatory review.
Documents pertaining to Energy Fuels’ application for the proposed Piñon Ridge mill are available on the CDPHE website at http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/rad/rml/energyfuels/.