Montrose Colorado County Commissioners will hear public comments on the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill one last time, at a Sept. 9 meeting at 9 a.m. at the Montrose County Fairgrounds and Event Center, before they decide whether to issue a special use permit for the project. If approved, it would be the first new uranium mill to open in the U.S. in nearly 30 years.
While former uranium mills in both Utah and Colorado are designated as Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, new mills have been proposed for both states. The Piñon Ridge project is closest to breaking ground.
Energy Fuels Resources Corp. is behind the proposal, and chief executive officer George Glasier said the company has devoted significant resources to its approval.
“We’ve got $9 million invested in this project,” Glasier said. “A small part to buy the site, and the rest for the environmental work. You can’t license a mill in Colorado or anywhere else in the U.S. without meeting the standards we’ve met.”
Those standards are designed to prevent consequences such as those in Moab, where the Atlas mill left behind 16 million tons of radioactive tailings that have been leaching toxic material into the Colorado River. Department of Energy officials overseeing the Atlas cleanup have said it will likely take more than a decade to complete the cleanup.
“They didn’t have regulations that defined where you should build these things and what you should look for,” Glasier said of the Atlas site. “We studied eight different sites in Colorado and Utah before we decided to build here.”
Proximity to the Colorado River is the main problem at the Atlas site, so the Piñon Ridge site, which sits between the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, has raised some eyebrows. However, Glasier said the water table at his location is more than 2,000 feet below where the mill will store waste in lined pits.
That isn’t enough to allay Sarah Fields’ concerns. As program director for Uranium Watch, a local nuclear industry watchdog group, Fields has studied many of the potential problems with uranium processing.
“There’s going to be a lot of emissions going into a narrow valley where you have inversions,” Fields said of the site.
She also expressed doubts about the state’s ability to control the operations. “Colorado didn’t do a very good job with the one mill they have there, the Cotter Mill, which is a Superfund site,” Fields said. “They’ve recently discovered more contamination off-site. They should have closed down that mill a long time ago, and now the owners of the mill want to put in a lot of money and bring it back online. So, no, I don’t think the state of Colorado has shown that it has an adequate program.”
Like the Atlas site, the Cotter Mill was built in the 1950s. As Glasier noted, there wasn’t much regulation at the time. Cotter stored waste in unlined ponds, which have since leached into the nearby community. Contamination is still being found in the area, even though the unlined ponds were abandoned decades ago for a lined facility.
“They’re going to have lined ponds, but, eventually, well, liners are not made to last forever. They don’t last forever,” Fields said.
If the mill is approved, it will mean more uranium industry activity beyond the 85 or so people it will take to run the mill. Local mines will also benefit. Currently, mine operators have trouble getting their ore processed, Glasier said.
“The only processing mill is the White Mesa Mill, south of Blanding, and we’ve talked to them for several years and have been unsuccessful in obtaining any kind of deal,” Glasier said.
Energy Fuels also owns a number of mines, so the mill is a necessary link in their operations, he said. “We’ve got a mine over by La Sal, Utah, called the Energy Queen. It’s not in operation – we’re waiting for a place to put the ore,” Glasier said.
That also makes Fields nervous. “I can’t imagine them trucking ore over that narrow, winding road that runs from La Sal to Paradox,” she said.
That prospect doesn’t faze Glasier. He said there are already trucks using that road to haul limestone, and his product is no different.
“It’s just the uranium-bearing rock; it’s very low-grade, low radioactivity,” Glasier said. “You can cover it with a tarp; it’s no more dangerous than a gravel truck. The hazard is it could come flying out and break a windshield. People don’t understand, this uranium ore is all around, and we’re not all dying here.”
The Montrose County Planning Commission has recommended approval of a special use permit for the project. Now it needs approval from the county commission before it goes to Colorado state officials for review.
According to county commission member Gary Ellis, that decision could come as early as Sept. 21. First, the commission is looking for more input. They held one public hearing in August in Nucla, Colo., which was accessible to residents on the west end of the county, who will be most affected.
Montrose County is split geographically by the Uncompahgre Plateau, so Ellis said commissioners like to hold regional meetings to reach as many constituents as possible. The August meeting also attracted people from outside the county, even the state, but Ellis said the majority of local participants seemed to favor the proposal.
“The west end’s been really economically depressed for a very long time, and jobs have been difficult to generate over there,” Ellis said. “The locals themselves, those who’ve been here for years, they appear at this point to be very supportive of the approval of this permit.”
Still, Ellis said there are many factors to consider. “What’s in the best interest of the county? Is there going to be health impact? What is the benefit of economic development? We’re just open to all the information we’re able to find before we make that final decision,” Ellis said.