Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pinion Ridge uranium mill under fire

Environmental groups file multiple legal challenges

This blog post is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week, V9:N366, March 3, 2010, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

The Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA), a Telluride, Colo., environmental group, and its legal counsel, the Energy Minerals Law Center (EMLC), located in Durango, Colo, have taken a two-pronged approach to try to stop the development of the Pinion Ridge uranium mill. The 500 ton/day facility is being developed by Energy Fuels (TSE:EFR) and will be located in Naturita, Colo., about 50 miles northwest of Telluride.

The most significant legal action is a lawsuit filed in Montrose County District Court which alleges the County Commissioners erred by issuing a special use permit for industrial operations in an agricultural zone.

Travis Stills, attorney for the Sheep Mountain Alliance, told FCW the claim is a uranium mill is not an allowed use in an agricultural zone and that the county should have re-zone the site to industrial uses before issuing the special use permit.

Mediation may not work

mediationFor now a judge has told the county and the Sheep Mountain Alliance to develop a mediation proceeding to settle the case before it goes to trial. Stills isn't confident mediation will work. He's waiting for the county to give him a record of all the hearing notes and the county's record of decision.

However, Frank Filas, Environmental Manager for Energy Fuels, told FCW the Sheep Mountain Alliance "doesn't understand that the planned mill is not a smelter."

Plus, Filas says, when Energy Fuels approached the county with their request, "the county told use the special use permit was the way to go."

"They made that decision and are standing by it."

Robert Hill, the Montrose County Attorney, backs up Filas on that point. He told FCW "As a county, we think we were correct in that decision."

Hill adds the current lawsuit is really still an administrative proceeding. The court will determine, based on the hearing record, whether the county commissioners used the evidence before them to grant the special use permit. Hill also said the county was willing to make a "good faith effort" at mediation, but he also qualified it by remarking "we'll see where that goes."

Size of the mill?

yellowcakeSMStills also claims the size of the mill is a moving target. He told FCW that in some public forums Energy Fuels said the mill would be a 500 ton/day operation and in others it would process 1,000 tons per day.

Filas told FCW, "In the five feet of paper we submitted as our application for a radioactive materials license with the State of Colorado, we always maintained the mill would be able to handle up to 500 tons/day. If future market conditions support expansion, we'll have to come back the state to get permission to increase its size."

Area mines would supply the ore with varying grades of uranium per ton of ore. Assuming a grade of 4 pounds per ton of ore, a 500 ton/day mill would produce 2,000 pounds, or one ton of Yellowcake per day. Assuming operations for 300 days/year, the output of the mill would be 600,000 pounds of Yellowcake per year or 300 tons.

Dolores River center of contentions

sheepmtnallianceThe other issue environmental groups are raising is water rights. Hilary White, the acting executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, told FCW her group estimates the mill will need about 800 acre feet of water per year and that one-third to one-half will come from wells and the rest from the San Miguel River. She also said the Dolores River (right) would be impacted by the mill.

White said that the group is concerned toxic materials from the mill tailing pile will get into the river harming fish and wildlife and that wind will make dust from the piles airborne resulting in people inhaling uranium dust. She said the group is particularly concerned about the impact of the mill on tourism.

White said the Sheep Mountain Alliance will file briefs with state regulatory agencies challenging Energy Fuels on the issue of "beneficial use of the water." She's not alone. A Utah environmental group, Red Rock Forests, is also planning on challenging the water rights for the mill because the Dolores River, which is only a few miles from the mill site, eventually flows into the Colorado River 250 miles away in Utah.

Wild & Scenic Rivers assessment

DoloresRiverHarold Shephard, the director of Red Rocks Forests, told FCW the Dolores River is under review by the BLM to be a "wild and scenic river," and that depletion of the water flow, or contamination from the mill, could stop BLM from designating it with this federal resource protection. His group plans to join Sheep Mountain Alliance in opposing the acquisition of water rights by Energy Fuels for the mill.

The BLM Grand Junction Field Office said on its website Dec 11, 2009, that an April 2009 report found that while segments of the Dolores River are eligible for the designation, it is not a sure thing.

"Some river segments may be determined to have issues that will make manageability challenging given other conflicting uses. These segments would be determined to not be suitable for designation."

No determination has been made to date about the suitability of the Dolores River for the "Wild & Scenic" designation which must ultimately be approved by Congress.

Mill permit hearings

energy fuels Both the lawsuit and the water rights issue are taking place distinctly separate from a series of public hearing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are holding on Energy Fuels application. The agency has about 14 months left to complete its review.

Filas told FCW that in a perfect world the state would allow Energy Fuels to break ground for the mill in January 2011, but, he says, "I don't think that's going to happen."

Filsa said he feels the environmental groups are relentless in their opposition to uranium mining in defense of their members' outdoor lifestyle and tourism. It appears to the uranium industry in western Colorado that fish trump jobs.

"We expect appeals of whatever decision the state makes. While the appeal process is short, these people don't give up. We expect more litigation."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, I like your blog. On this Greenie battle in Colorado, if ag is treated the same way as it is in Wyoming from a planning and zoning standpoint, basically any commercial use is allowed by right on ag land. I know Greenies in the west like to consider Ag the same as "open space" which it is not. May also be that the CC considered the mill not much more technical than a gravel operation. I guess I would look to the Planning Staff's report of the findings as determined by their land development regulations for the conditional use permit.