If achieved, the proposed uranium mill would be located about 12 miles west of Naturita, seven miles east of Bedrock along State Highway 90, and adjacent to an open pit uranium mine owned by the Cotter Corporation (an affiliate of General Atomics, whose chief executive officer is former Telluride Valley Floor owner Neal Blue) in a historic mining district containing hundreds of uranium mines.
Proposed by Energy Fuels Resources Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Toronto-based Energy Fuels Inc., it would be the nation’s first uranium mill built in nearly three decades, and could become ground zero for the country’s radioactive needs in exploration, mining and ore processing, considering comments made by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu that nuclear energy is “the wave of the future.”
The Montrose County Commissioners unanimously approved a special use permit for the mill at a hearing in September that would allow the industrial facility to be sited on 880 acres zoned for agricultural use in Paradox Valley – a picturesque stadium of sheer, red rock cliffs surrounding a lush and green agricultural landscape that lies atop the Uravan Mineral Belt – a formation that contains one of the country’s largest concentrations of high-grade uranium and vanadium.
Montrose County Commissioner David White proved prescient when prior to that September hearing he told a group of officials from Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties gathered for a meeting in Ridgway that the issue was so controversial that the county will probably be sued regardless of how the commissioners decided.
“This is a highly contentious issue on both sides,” White said. “Whatever our decision is, somebody is going to sue us. Either the applicant is going to sue us or Travis Stills [attorney with Durango’s Energy Mineral Law Center] is going to sue us.”
Indeed, in November Telluride-based conservation group Sheep Mountain Alliance, represented by Stills, filed suit in District Court against the Montrose County Commissioners and Montrose County Planning and Development Director Steve White.
The suit claimed that the commissioners violated county zoning rules and abused their discretion when they unanimously approved the special use permit, and charged that White abused his discretion and acted beyond his authority when making decisions regarding the permit application filed in July 2008.
The complaint also alleged that a meeting took place in March 2008 between EFRC representatives, the Montrose commissioners, three Montrose County employees, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment employee, and one member of the public in violation of state open meetings laws.
Rather than seeking damages the lawsuit asked that the special use permit be invalidated and the matter remanded to the BOCC for reconsideration.
It also asked that the uranium mill and its related waste disposal facility be declared industrial uses not allowed on land zoned for agricultural use.
Energy Fuels in November, following the Montrose County approval, filed an application for a radioactive materials license with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Colorado is among 37 “agreement states” to which federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission transfers authority to regulate and license uranium. The mill cannot be built without the CDPHE license.
In keeping with state law, 30 days later on Dec. 18, the CDPHE declared the application to be complete, triggering the start of the state’s comprehensive technical review of the proposed mill, which will take between 12 and 14 months.
In a 16-page joint letter dated a few days before the 30-day deadline Sheep Mountain Alliance, joined by the Paradox Valley Sustainability Association, asked the CDPHE to find the application incomplete for failing to address “the serious direct, indirect and cumulative impacts posed by a uranium mill,” and stated that it contained insufficient information and analysis to trigger the technical review period.
When asked about the numerous deficiencies alleged in the SMA/PVSA letter a CDPHE spokesperson said that his agency did not receive the letter until he obtained a copy from a reporter after the decision had been announced.
“I have passed it along,” to the appropriate people, he said. “We will review it and share it with the technical staff.”
Nevertheless, the contents of the letter would not change the outcome of the completeness decision on the application, he said.
When running at full capacity the mill would use 300 gallons of water per minute to process 21 truckloads per day containing 500 tons of uranium ore into yellow cake uranium and processed vanadium, seven days a week, 350 days a year, for an operating life of 40 years.
The uranium would eventually go to nuclear power plants and the vanadium would be used to strengthen steel.
Although news of the mill broke in 2006, this year the public became deeply involved in the issue as hundreds of people turned out for the hearings held between May and September.
Vocal proponents, many from old mining families that remembered the “boom” times of decades past when uranium mining was big business in the area before a “bust cycle began 30 years ago, spoke of an opportunity to create badly needed jobs in a now economically lackluster part of the region.
Energy Fuels has said that the mill would create up to 85 new jobs averaging $40,000 to $75,000 a year plus benefits, and 80 percent of which would come from the local population, in addition to supporting 200 ancillary mining and trucking jobs at nearby mines and generating tax revenues for public services and infrastructure.
Equally vocal mill opponents cited concern about its potential to negatively impact health, the environment, and any hope of developing a sustainable economy based on agriculture and recreation in Paradox Valley because of the negative perception they believe the mill would create.
The proposed mill has sharply divided the region to highlight a fundamental rift between its rural residents and their more urban counterparts.
One sentiment commonly heard during the hearings was that only recent area transplants and, generally speaking, anyone from Telluride, opposed the mill.
Southwestern Colorado/eastern Utah at one time had five operating uranium mills, but since the price for the ore fell in the 1980s, the area now only has one active uranium mill, the White Mesa mill, in Blanding, Utah,
Ironically, the Piñon Ridge mill site is, as the crow flies, only 12 miles away from the area’s last remaining uranium mill, in Uravan, that was dismantled during a 20-year, $120 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediation of the former Superfund site.
In October 2008, the EPA certified the remediation as complete after removing 13 million cubic yards of contaminants, treating 380 million gallons of liquid, capping and revegetating 10 million cubic yards of radioactive tailings, disposing 530,000 cubic yards of radioactive raffinate crystals, and securing 12 million yards of tailings waste along the San Miguel River.