Water agency considers proposal for uranium mill water lease
by Ron Georg, contributing writer
Jan 17, 2008 | 611 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
    When geologist Gregory Hunt came before the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency on Jan. 3 to request a lease for some of the agency's unused water rights, he didn't plan to tell the agency that the company he represents, Mancos Resources, wants to build a uranium mill just west of Green River in Emery County.

    "Apparently that's already public information. We have not formally announced because Emery County's plan is not complete, but it would be a uranium processing facility." Hunt said. "We really hadn't planned on announcing. It's impressive how much information can be available to the public."

    What impressed Hunt was the small gathering of activists at the meeting. There was little opportunity for the public to address the issue, but when local nuclear watchdog Sarah Fields spoke during the citizens-to-be-heard period, murmurs from the audience made it clear they were there to express their concern.

    GWSSA board members also had concerns. "Is there a reason why Emery County isn't providing water to their own industrial park?" John Hartley asked. "It's putting Grand County in a pretty strange position, to be providing water to another county to do a uranium mill. To be honest with you, that doesn't sit very well with people here. I'm not talking as a board, but as the community in general."

    Board member John Keys also addressed the idea of being put in a strange position. "I'm not saying no either, but usually when folks come to us to lease water, they tell us what they're going to use it for. You haven't told us yet what you're going to use yours for," Keys said, 20 minutes into Hunt's presentation.

    However, the water's specific use may not play a significant role in the board's decision. The agency needs to provide proof that water is being put to beneficial use within a specified time period, or it will lose the right to the water. In the case of the 2,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water Mancos Resources has requested (which would be transferred to the Green River for this deal), the agency needs to "prove up" on the rights by 2018 or lose those rights.

    The term "beneficial use" might seem a sticking point for some questioning the wisdom of building a uranium mill, but in the agency's narrow purview of water issues, it can simply mean any use which proves up the right under favorable leasing terms. "There are three considerations that this board is responsible for taking into account in this decision," board member Lance Christie said. "One is, to be able to prove up the rights so that they are not lost. Second is to obtain the most favorable return to this agency's budget that is possible, and the third is to not have water rights tied up so that they are not available to us to transfer into the system in the future."

    Considerations such as the safety of the facility, including its potential for groundwater contamination, are left to other agencies, including the Utah Department of Radiation Control. According to UDRC Director Dane Finerfrock, his agency hasn't received an application for any new milling facility recently. In fact, there haven't been any applications for decades, and only the Denison Mines facility in Blanding is operational.

    According to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nearly all of the uranium mills in the country are being decommissioned. At the same time, the NRC notes, the price of yellow cake, the end product of a uranium mill, climbed from $10 a pound in 2002 to $90 per pound in 2007. Still, Finerfrock said his agency isn't gearing up for an increase in facility applications, but they will look closely at any proposal. "Making sure that the facility is sited appropriately is something we take very seriously," he said.

    However, there are officials at levels higher than the UDRC who've already made site decisions that put this type of industry in Utah rather than, say, Connecticut. Under a map of uranium mills in the United States on the NRC's website, there's a simple addendum which reads: "Note: Uranium mills are located in western states because the population density is lower."

    The request for a lease by Mancos Resources is on the GWSSA'a agenda again for Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. The board could make a final decision at that time, without public input.

    "We're not going to hold public hearings, it's not needed, it's not mandated," board member Gary Wilson said. "But I don't have a problem hearing the citizens to be heard for four minutes, it's surely fine."

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