According to BLM records, the western Colorado counties had 3,352 existing mining claims for uranium in 2006. As of April 2007, the total had swelled to 8,113 claims. Some claims have already translated into significant exploration. “We went from zero notices of exploration from uranium in 2005 to four in 2006 and fourteen so far in 2007, and one company is actually re-activating in San Miguel County,” explains Helen Mary Johnson of the BLM Field Office in Durango. That activity covers the area from Egnar to Montrose County.
Indeed, the Colorado Geological Survey indicates that in April 2007, there were 35 active uranium permits in Colorado. Fourteen were in San Miguel County, while another 17 were in Montrose County. However, not all the mines are producing.
What is happening here is a quiet resurgence of the boom and bust industry of uranium mining.
The West End, including Egnar, Paradox and nearby areas, is part of the Uravan mineral belt, one of the richest sources of uranium in the nation, as well as the oldest, and historically the most productive uranium and vanadium region in the state, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. The agency’s Web site indicates: “The Uravan mineral belt has about 1,200 historic mines that produced over 63 million pounds of uranium and 330 million pounds of vanadium from 1948 to 1978.”
The Department of Energy issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) document for the Uranium Leasing Program Programmatic Environmental Assessment on July 5, 2007, sealing the future for this area. The document authorizes uranium mining leases on 27,000 acres of BLM land in southwestern Colorado, primarily in San Miguel and Montrose counties.
While mining claim filings are ramping up, not all those claims are transforming into mines. San Miguel County has some of the only active mines in the region right now. Denison Mines Corporation currently runs three mines in San Miguel County, and the Board of Commissioners will consider its request for an additional nine acres, primarily to improve ventilation, on Oct. 24.
The recent increases in mining claims are spurring a mill renaissance. Mills process the ore by separating pure uranium from the raw rock into yellow cake. There are currently four uranium mills in the U.S., and only one of those is operating. Located near Blanding, Utah, and owned by Denison White Mesa, L.L.C., part of a Canadian company, the White Mesa Mill has a capacity of 2,000 tons of uranium ore per day. By comparison, Cotter Corporation’s Canyon City Mill, currently undergoing repairs, has a capacity of 400 tons per day.
If Energy Fuels Inc., also of Canada, is successful, another mill will be operating on a 1,000-acre site outside of Naturita in the Paradox Valley within three years. The first mill built in 25 years, the Pinon Ridge Mill will process as much as 1,000 tons of ore per day of both uranium and vanadium, serving the company’s needs for 30 years, according to its press release.
No strangers to the milling business, the team designing and building the mill were responsible for the White Mesa Mill, which has the distinction of being the last operational uranium mill commissioned in the U.S.
Energy Fuels has purchased the mill property and is also permitting land near Gateway for mining. The Whirlwind Mine, approximately five miles from Gateway up John Brown Canyon, straddles the Utah/Colorado border. It pulls together some 206 mining claims anticipated to produce an average of 200 tons or ore per day for 10 years. The Whirlwind would reopen two former underground mines.
The ore will be trucked down a snaking dirt road to Colorado Highway 141 to the White Mesa Mill in Blanding. Up to 40 round-trip truckloads per week will make their way through the red rock canyon of the Dolores River, then along the San Miguel River into Naturita, and over into Dry Creek Basin to Egnar.
The BLM scoping process, with the issuance of an Environmental Assessment and decision, is anticipated to wrap up sometime in early 2008, according to Melody Lloyd, public affairs officer for the federal agency. Mesa County is considering a conditional-use permit as well with hearings scheduled for Oct. 29 and in mid-December.
Ironically, the trucks will pass by the former town site of Uravan, a recently completed 15-year, $70 million reclamation project. Uranium mining left piles of tailings along the San Miguel River that required a federally funded clean up.
Why the interest? Blame it on the roller coaster-riding price of uranium for one. In 2003 the price of uranium was $10 per pound. This week, uranium closed at $78 on Oct. 15, after ricocheting up to $138 only three months ago and back again.
Another reason is the rebirth of nuclear power, touted as a clean alternative to greenhouse gas-spewing coal plants. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. utilities have plans for at least 30 new plants. None has been ordered since 1973. China also has plans for up to 114 nuclear reactors. Plus, tax breaks for nuclear power plants sweeten the deal for U.S. utilities.
Not everyone embraces the revival of uranium mining. The Colorado Environmental Coalition has taken a tough stance on the Whirlwind Mine and other uranium development. “We’re especially concerned about water quality, air quality and transportation issues in the area,” says Chad Kennard, CEC spokesperson. “Also, no federal agency has stepped in to do an analysis of the cumulative impacts on recreation, water and air quality in the region.”
San Miguel County Commissioners’ position in August 2006 on DOE’s proposal to open up 27,000 acres in San Miguel and nearby counties was markedly chilly. The letter indicated that “the County believes the very activity of mining for uranium is ecologically unwise, unhealthy to humans, and unsustainable.” The Commissioners’ “first preference” was for the DOE to “withdraw all its uranium tracts into inactive status and hold them in reserve until a solution can be found to the problem of radioactive waste disposal/storage.”
Nevertheless, the prospect for additional jobs, which are also closer to home and a source of considerable tax revenues, has communities like Nucla and Naturita eager to see uranium mining and milling come back.
Copyright 2007 Amy R. Levek