NUCLA – Despite a raging blizzard that made road travel a harrowing experience, well over 200 people attended a public hearing held by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in Nucla last Thursday evening, the majority in support of a radioactive materials license application presently under the agency’s consideration.
Energy Fuels Resources Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Toronto-based Energy Fuels Inc., is seeking the license. If approved it would enable the company to build the nation’s first uranium mill in nearly three decades on 880 acres in Paradox Valley now zoned for agricultural use.
The facility, the Piñon Ridge Mill, would be located along State Highway 90 about 12 miles west of Naturita, seven miles east of Bedrock and adjacent to an open pit uranium mine owned by the Cotter Corp., in a historic uranium mining district.
“There’s a lot of local support,” said Energy Fuels Chief Executive Officer George Glasier of the high attendance, which, if anything, resembled a pro-mill rally given that the majority of attendees wore pro-mill buttons or carried pro-mill signs, and that the ratio of three-minute comments spoken in favor of the mill to those against it was 6:1.
“We expected more opposition,” Glasier continued. “Maybe it was the weather.”
Colorado is among 37 “agreement states” to which federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission transfers authority to regulate and license uranium. As a result the CDPHE is in the process of conducting a 12 to14-month comprehensive technical review of the license application. The mill cannot be built without the license approval.
According to a presentation by Frank Filas, environmental manager for Energy Fuels, the mill would process 500 tons of ore daily (hopefully expanding to handle 1,000 tons of ore daily at a future point).
At 500 tons per day capacity it would produce 770,000 pounds of uranium oxide annually – enough to produce 1,500 megawatts of electricity each year, he said.
Additionally, it would produce 2.7 million pounds of vanadium oxide annually for use in steel production.
The mill, sited in the Uravan Mineral Belt, would operate seven days a week, 350 days a year, for an operating life of 40 years. It would use 144 gallons of water per minute to process the ore.
The CDPHE’s mission is to protect and preserve “the health and environment of the people of Colorado,” according to its website. As such, a number of pro-mill speakers sought to underscore the safety regulations governing the modern uranium industry, both to persuade to CDPHE to look favorably upon the application and to counter concern voiced by mill opponents regarding the potential health and environmental impacts of the mill.
“If anyone was going to speak out against [the mill], it would be me,” said supporter Tammy Sutherland of Redvale, indicating that the health of members of her own family has been negatively impacted by the uranium industry of yesteryear.
“It was bad when there was no regulation,” she admitted, but then added: “We have regulation now.”
“Yes, it was horrible, some bad things happened, but that was in the past,” she continued after stating that opponents criticize the industry based upon its past, not its present.
Others, like Hank Williams of Norwood, spoke about the country’s need to stop depending on imported fuel.
“This is progress, folks,” he said. “Not only for us as local residents but for the entire U.S. What better way can we help energy independence than by mining our own uranium?”
But the issue of jobs took center stage during the evening moderated by retired Judge Richard J. Brown. Speaker after speaker implored the CDPHE employees to approve the license for reasons of economic development.
“The people in this area need the jobs,” said former Nucla resident Joyce Shaffer, now from Loma, Colo., who traveled to the meeting with a handful of Grand Junction Tea Party activists. “We ask that you will consider this to save the life of the West End.”
“These people here want it, they need it,” said Don Coram, a director of the Naturita-based Western Small Miners Association, who presented the CDPHE with an economic impact analysis of the proposed mill done by that group.
Based upon a “a renewed, regulated and fully operational uranium industry,” the WSMA anticipates that the Piñon Ridge Mill would springboard the creation of 1,400 new direct and indirect jobs totaling almost $50 million in annual income in an area that, despite once being at the heart of the global uranium industry, met its economic demise as a result of “the mistakes of the unregulated, Cold War-driven industry.”
“The construction and operation of the Piñon Ridge Mill will act as a catalyst for the industry, creating stable mining, milling and professional service careers that have been sorely missed for decades,” the analysis document stated. “The WSMA believes the economic growth of western Montrose County and the future of the uranium industry in Montrose County hinge upon the success of the Piñon Ridge Mill.”
But Craig Pirazzi, who heads the mill opposition group Paradox Valley Sustainability Association, questioned the substance of much of the evening’s testimony.
“As an environmental protection board, where does economics come into this?” he asked the CDPHE representatives.
“The amount of people that need jobs and the economic deprivation that happened here for the past 30 years is due in large part to uranium and mineral extraction,” he continued.
“These are not stable jobs; these people deserve better than this.”
Biological consultant Julie Schneider, also of the PVSA, criticized the quality of the radioactive materials license application submitted by Energy Fuels.
“These are some of the worst, if not the worst, wildlife reports I’ve seen done,” she said. She later added, “The quality of these documents is appalling to say the least.”
David Glynn of Ophir said that although uranium mining and milling safety regulation may be better today than in the past, the real issue is what to do with the waste at the end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
“There is no solution at this time. Until there is, I don’t think it’s wise to grant a permit,” he said.
“I hope that you take the endgame heavily into your mind as you go through this process.”
A second public hearing on the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 17, at the Montrose Pavilion, 6-10 p.m. Signup to speak opens at 4:45 p.m.
In the meantime, the Montrose Board of County Commissioners, which in September unanimously approved a special permit allowing the construction and operation of the Piñon Ridge Mill, has 90 days from last week’s meeting to submit its review of the environmental report included with the application.
The CDPHE must approve or deny the application within 270 days after receipt of the BOCC’s comments, or within 360 days after the second public meeting, if the BOCC does not respond.
Documents related to the Energy Fuels Piñon Ridge Mill are available at www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/rad/rml/energyfuels/index.htm, at the Nucla Public Library at 544 Main Street in Nucla, 970/864-2166, and Montrose County Planning and Development at 317 S. Second St. in Montrose, 970/249-6688.
Public comment on the application will be taken at public meetings, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Steve Tarlton or Warren Smith at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Radiation Program, 4300 Cherry Creek Dr. So., Denver, CO 80246-1530.