Uranium mining

Holding ponds at uranium processing mill in Uravan, Montrose County. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Local environmentalists are paradoxically finding a lot to celebrate in a federal judge’s recent decision to end a seven-year ban on uranium mining in the West End.

The lifting of the court-ordered injunction is directly tied to the demise of the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill — and may ultimately pave the way for more mine reclamation in the area.

The Department of Energy’s recent effort to renew uranium mining in the Paradox Valley area was stymied by a law suit in 2011, but Colorado U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez gave the program the green light to proceed again in March, when he approved the DOE’s motion to lift his previous injunction barring mining leases at 31 dormant uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt.

Far from being concerned about a new rush on uranium mining in the area, “The biggest takeaway [from the lifted injunction] is that the Department of Energy can get to work on stalled-out reclamation plans in the area, because it can’t hide behind the injunction anymore to not reclaim these mines,” said Jeff Parsons, a senior attorney with the Western Mining Action Project.

“The judge’s decision finally recognizes what we have known for a really long time — which is that, unfortunately, Piñon Ridge was never really a viable project,” added Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance.

The Department of Energy’s Uranium Leasing Program, a remnant from the Cold War era,   oversaw the original uranium boom in the West End. The program lay dormant for years until 2008, when DOE decided to reboot it and issued new 10-year lease agreements to existing leaseholders in the area.

Several environmental watchdog groups, including Sheep Mountain Alliance, the Western Mining Action Project and Information Network for Responsible Mining, sued the DOE for failing to go through the full environmental scoping process when relaunching the program.

In a decisive victory for the watchdog groups, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled in 2011 that DOE had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by cutting corners on its environmental impact analysis.

As part of that ruling, the judge issued an injunction against any mining activity on the DOE-administered mining leases at 31 uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt.

The injunction was intended to last until the DOE complied with the court order to complete a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, with site-specific analysis for every mining tract in the future, should the dormant mines eventually come back on line.

After years of delays, the DOE finally released its PEIS in 2014; it remains in place even though the injunction on mining in the area has now been lifted.

“To me, that is the important thing, because it will allow for looking at a specific mine and its impacts in the future,” said Jennifer Thurston, executive director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, which monitors the hardrock mining industry in Colorado.

The fate of the dormant uranium mines in the West End has been inextricably intertwined with the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill.

The mill was initially promoted as a way to serve the uranium mines that would soon be reopening under the DOE’s leasing program. But when the DOE released its PEIS for the leasing program to comply with the court order, it did not include an analysis of the impacts that the mill would have on the environment.

Mills use exponentially more water than mines, and in an arid area like the West End, the environmental groups argued, there was simply not enough water in the already-stressed Dolores River to support such a large milling operation. The plaintiffs bolstered their argument by evoking the Endangered Species Act, arguing that four endangered fish species native to the Colorado River and the lower Dolores River could be negatively impacted by renewed milling and mining in the West End.

“If you are concerned about these two rivers and the health of aquatic life, it’s a pretty stunning consumption of water for an extractive industry that is not very viable or stable,” Thurston said. “By draining the Dolores River, you impact the fisheries downstream.”

The environmental watchdog groups complained to the court, and the court ordered the DOE to do its PEIS over again, taking the Piñon Ridge Mill’s water consumption into consideration. Instead, the DOE launched a series of appeals in court and asked to be relieved of the injunction that had halted all activity on its mining tracts in the West End.

In February 2018, the judge denied the DOE's final motion to resolve the injunction and again required the water study to be completed.

Meanwhile, Energy Fuels had acquired the White Mesa Uranium Mill in southern Utah, and was no longer financially motivated to build the Piñon Ridge Mill.

The mill proposal entered a death spiral in April 2018, when Judge Richard W. Dana ruled that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) should deny the application for the Piñon Ridge uranium mill license, concluding that Energy Fuels Inc. had failed to demonstrate protection for animals, plants and birds near the proposed mill site; how it would limit the wind dispersion of radioactive materials; how it would limit contamination of ground water; and how adequate water to operate the mill and tailings ponds would be provided.

Two months later, the court relieved DOE of its obligation to complete a final analysis on Piñon Ridge Mill.

The court’s lifting of the injunction on uranium mining in the West End was “letting go of the last 2 percent” of the case, Thurston said. “The Piñon Ridge Mill is truly dead. The lifting of the injunction was always going to happen. It does allow for activity to move along on those tracts — and that is alarming to people who are concerned about uranium mining. But the injunction was extraordinary in that it lasted eight years — and it’s only because DOE dragged its feet that it lasted so long.”

The mine tracts in question that have been released from the injunction are on public lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, and leased to potential operators including Energy Fuels and Cotter Corporation, which is in the midst of transferring its West End portfolio to Anfield Energy, a Canadian junior mine company working to expand its portfolio of uranium properties in the U.S.

(Colorado State Senator Don Coram’s mining company, Golden Eagle, controls two lease tracts and four permitted mines in the area of interest, but Coram is taking steps to clean up and shut down the four uranium mines he owns.)

Now that the injunction has been lifted, these operators are technically allowed to move forward with mining. However, Thurston emphasized, “They would have to comply with the environmental analysis, and would have to go through state permitting.”

Thurston doesn’t think it’s likely that the area will see a resurgence of uranium mining anytime soon.

“The longterm viability of uranium mining in the area is questionable,” she said. “We might see a little activity, but probably not.”

Energy Fuels, having emerged from the years-long battle over the Piñon Ridge Mill, has moved on to focus on other projects and no longer has much of a stake in its lease tracts in the West End.

“We hold a few of the DOE leases up there, but they are not really in our short or medium term plans,” said Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore. “There are some resources out there and a lot of those are former mines operated in the 1950s and 1960s. The mines could still operate but it would take a lot of work to bring them into compliance with modern regulations. It’s not a priority for us.”

Adding to the challenge, the economics of uranium mining have remained in a prolonged bust cycle. Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill is the only active uranium mill in the US, and makes ends meet by reprocessing waste from other facilities around the country.