Activists’ bid to force uranium-mine cleanup fails

DENVER – Environmentalists failed in their attempt Wednesday to force the cleanup of several long-dormant uranium mines on the Western Slope.

Decades ago, Colorado’s uranium belt north of Dove Creek and west of Telluride provided high-paying jobs and much of the fuel for the country’s early nuclear-weapons arsenal. But the mines have been mostly shuttered since the early 1980s, with only brief production from a few mines from 2004 to 2006.Activists at the Information Network for Responsible Mining say it’s time to clean them. They targeted two companies – Cotter Corp. and Energy Fuels – to ask state mining regulators to deny them permission to put their mines on a five-year inactive status.But the Mined Land Reclamation Board voted 4-2 Wednesday to allow the companies to go on inactive status, which means they will not have to commence cleanup.Jeff Parsons, a lawyer for INFORM, argued that state law says “in no case” should a mine be allowed to sit dormant for more than 10 years before it has to lose its permit and begin cleanup. Cotter owns four mines that have not produced ore since about 1981, company officials testified Wednesday.“The fact that they’ve been given this exceedingly generous 30-year gap needs to end,” Parsons said.

Parsons argued that state mining regulators have been getting it wrong for decades by letting mining companies maintain their permits even though they aren’t producing ore.

Members of the mining board conceded that Parsons might have a point, but they didn’t want to revoke permits that the state had granted and has honored for years.

“I think to retroactively go back and pull the rug out would be very damaging to their people,” said Tom Brubaker, a member of the mining board.

INFORM now has the option to sue the mining board, but Parsons said it’s too early to say if his group will go to court.

A federal judge’s order has blocked all uranium mining in Southwest Colorado since 2011, when he found the government didn’t properly study the environmental effects of leasing public lands to uranium companies.INFORM pressured state mining regulators to tell uranium companies that they need to put their mines on inactive status, known as temporary cessation, because mining hasn’t occurred for more than a year.

INFORM then asked the mining board to deny the temporary cessation permits for Cotter and backdate them for Energy Fuels, which would have the effect of forcing the mines to begin cleanup sooner.

Piles of uranium waste rock outside some of the mines threaten to pollute nearby water sources, INFORM activists say.

But Cotter officials said they keep the mines clean.“Cotter is on board and committed to doing reclamation on each of these properties,” said Glen Williams, the company’s vice president of production.Cotter last produced from two of the mines in 2006, pulling around $13 million worth of ore from them, Williams said.

However, even without the federal judge’s injunction on mining, Cotter would not be mining right now, he said.“I doubt that we would be with the price where it is right now. It’s forecast to go up in the next two or three years,” Williams said.

Cotter owns half a dozen mines in Southwest Colorado. Energy Fuels has been buying up mines around the Colorado Plateau. The company wants to build a new uranium mill in the Paradox Valley, although last year it bought a mill in Utah to process its ore.On Tuesday, INFORM filed similar protests against Gold Eagle, a small mining company owned by state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Coram’s mines will be the subject of a Mined Land Reclamation Board hearing as soon as May.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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