But that criticism may have lost some of its sting last week when scientists hired by local environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance to examine parts of a 15-volume radioactive materials license application submitted to state regulators last fall by Energy Fuels Resources Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Toronto-based Energy Fuels Inc., presented their findings during two public meetings held in Telluride and Ophir.
“I think that it empowered our stance beyond just an emotional concern, which has been Sheep Mountain Alliance’s goal all along,” said Executive Director Hilary White.
“We’re somewhat new to the process,” said Jamie Holmes, managing scientist with the Boulder, Colo.-based environmental consulting firm Stratus Consulting that studied hydrological issues at the proposed Piñon Ridge mill site. The site is located about 12 miles west of Naturita and seven miles east of Bedrock along State Highway 90 in Montrose County’s Paradox Valley.
While the firm usually conducts resource damage assessments at mining and milling operations following a leak or other incident rather than prior to construction as SMA asked it to do in this case, “We’re very familiar with the types of problems that mills generally have,” said Holmes.
As a result, the firm raised concerns about the proposed mill first and foremost because all hard rock mining for heavy metals – including the uranium and vanadium that would be processed at Piñon Ridge – is fundamentally a toxic business, according to Holmes.
A solution of sulfuric acid would be used to leach the desired metals from the ore, leaving behind a waste solution containing concentrated levels of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead that would then be piped into lined evaporation ponds for containment.
“You don’t want anything to come in contact with this,” Holmes said. “You don’t want it in the groundwater, in surface water, you don’t want any wildlife coming in contact with it.”
Historically, however, linings have leaked, and net systems designed to prevent wildlife interaction with the toxic sludge have failed.
“Our biggest concern is that they will generate toxic waste, not control it properly and then leave it to taxpayers to clean up,” Holmes said. “That is a recurrent problem in this industry,” he continued, referring specifically to heavy metal mining and milling.
The Stratus report also questioned certain calculations arrived at by the applicant and the methodology used to reach them.
For example, while the company has maintained that it has access to enough water to conduct its milling operations for the 40-year operating life of the mill (primarily through an existing aquifer supplemented by water from the San Miguel River provided by the Town of Naturita and private water rights holders), Stratus is skeptical of the claim.
In studying the Chinle-Moenkopi aquifer intended to provide the majority of the water needed at the mill, consultants hired by the applicant determined it could deliver between 100 and 175 gallons per minute after conducting a 48-hour pump test. The company then modeled that rate of extraction for a period of five years.
“Their model shows that you can pump it as hard as they say they’re going to for five years,” said Holmes. “It’s not exactly clear why they didn’t model it for 40 years.”
Energy Fuels has calculated its mill would initially use 144 gallons of water per minute to process 500 tons of ore per day, seven days a week, 350 days per year.
Based upon the productivity of neighboring wells that access the same water supply, Holmes estimated that the aquifer could be depleted in as little as four years.
“We understand that’s an issue subject to question, we’re well aware of that,” said Energy Fuels Chief Executive Officer Steve Antony, who in April replaced George Glasier in the company’s top spot.
“That’s the precise reason we have arranged for backup,” he continued.
As a result, should the aquifer fail to produce as the company has calculated it will, “We’ll just increase the water supply coming from the contingency water supply,” he said.
While mill proponents have also criticized mill opponents as largely being outsiders from the Telluride region who are meddling in matters that don’t concern them, findings by Dr. Mark Williams, indicate otherwise.
“Here’s the bottom line, you guys live downwind, period; so keep that in mind,” said Williams, a geography professor at the University of Colorado who researches the ecology of mountain areas, has done atmospheric modeling in the Telluride area for 15 years, and developed ecological sensitivity maps that San Miguel County used in developing its high country zoning code.
Williams’s research shows that the dominant winter air pattern in the region runs directly from Paradox Valley to the Telluride region, where it encounters its first mountainous barrier and subsequently drops at least some of whatever dust and other materials are suspended in it.
“That’s just irrefutable,” Williams said, pointing to the red dust that now reliably coats the region’s high peaks each spring to cause a faster than normal snow melt-off.
“All of it is coming from the Four Corners area and some of it is from Paradox Valley,” he continued.
“If dust is generated [at the mill], some of it will end up here,” he said. “I’m happy to go to court and testify to that.”
Like Holmes, Williams also questioned the methodology used by Energy Fuels to model air pollution resulting from the mill.
“I just couldn’t follow them that well,” he said. “I don’t know whether that was done intentionally or not.”
“Our air dispersion modeling is based on the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] program which is the law of the land,” said Antony.
Asked whether the Sheep Mountain Alliance-commissioned reports could have merit, “We don’t believe there’s substance there, but I don’t want to discount them carte blanche at this point,” Antony said, adding, “This is all part of the negotiations of the permit process.”
“If they’re valid we have to seriously consider them and take them under advice insofar as the conditions of the permit,” he said.