New rules on uranium processing pass House

Monday, May 5, 2014 4:11 PM

DENVER – New regulations on uranium processing passed the state House on Monday, despite a plea from Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, that they would destroy hope in the mining towns in his district.

Senate Bill 192 is intended to address an environmental disaster caused by the Cotter uranium mill in Cañon City, where radioactive waste poisoned a neighborhood’s groundwater for years.

It passed 43-22 Monday morning.

“We want to make sure there is not another Cotter mill. We want to make sure groundwater is not polluted by uranium processing,” said one of the sponsors, Rep. K.C. Becker, D-Boulder.

The bill sets minimum standards for groundwater cleanups before a company can be let off the hook. It also requires uranium and thorium mines to get a radioactive materials license from the state health department if they use a new process that involves injecting water into the mine’s rock formations.

Coram led opposition to the bill, both Monday and in Friday debate that stretched into Saturday morning. He said the bill could kill a potential $3 billion vanadium industry on the Western Slope. Vanadium, which is used to produce batteries, is found alongside uranium in the region.

Coram, who owns uranium and vanadium mines in the region, said state and federal regulators would be better able to decide what mines need extra scrutiny, not the 65 members of the House of Representatives.

“This $3 billion decision will not be determined by 65 raw amateurs who think they’re doing the right thing,” Coram said.

In an impassioned debate around midnight Friday, he said the people of Nucla and Naturita, two depressed uranium towns in Montrose County, need some promise of a vanadium industry.

“Sooner or later, there is a breaking point. You can kill their opportunity. You can spoil their dreams,” Coram said. “These are real lives that you’re impacting, and you’re doing so unnecessarily.”

The towns held on to hope of a uranium resurgence for several years when Energy Fuels Resources Corp. proposed building a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley. But the company has since bought a Utah mill, and its near-term plans no longer include a Colorado mill.

But on Monday, Rep. Jared Wright, R-Fruita, said new mining technologies often pollute, despite promises to be safe and clean.

“This bill is about protecting our citizens, those we are all here today to serve,” Wright said.