NATURITA, Nov. 2, 9:53 a.m. – “The Piñon Ridge Mill will be the most environmentally friendly mill in the world,” said Energy Fuels Inc. President and CEO George Glasier of his company’s project, the construction of the nation’s first uranium/vanadium mill in 25 years. Located west of Naturita in the Paradox Valley, halfway between the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, on 1,000 acres of privately owned land, the mill is the first significant industry to arise in the area in some time.
Given its economically depressed nature, “the area generally wants the mill,” said Glasier. “Almost everyone here was here when uranium mining was happening, and when the industry went away, the jobs went away.”
Nucla Mayor Roxy Allex agrees. “The response from citizens has been favorable,” she said. “People definitely know what’s proposed. It’s the subject everywhere you go on the streets around here.”
With a serious unemployment problem, Nucla stands to gain up to 350 new jobs, with about 250 of those to be permanent positions at the mill. “That’s a big influx for a town of 735,” declares Allex, but for “an area as economically depressed as this, it’s major.”
However, others in the region are not as sanguine. The Colorado Environmental Council (CEC) has the burgeoning uranium industry squarely on its radar. “We’re looking at the mass industrialism of western Colorado,” says CEC’s Joe Neuhof of the addition of uranium mining to booming oil and gas activities.
The CEC is shining its spotlight on the uranium industry for legitimate reasons, and not all of them are environmental. Historically, uranium mills have left a wake of serious health issues behind them, long after mining and milling stop. Uranium miners in towns such as Nucla and Naturita died from lung cancer at five times the number expected in a similar-sized group of American men, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the New Mexico Tumor Registry.
Radon, created by the decay of radium in uranium ores, clings to dust particles created by mining and milling. That radioactive dust is inhaled into workers’ lungs, where it further decays, causing cancer.
An Impacted Community
Many of the cancer-afflicted workers who previously worked at Uravan banded together to sue Union Carbide, owner of the town and operations. Their suit was dismissed, although an appeal is still wending its way through the courts.
In 1986, Uravan was declared a superfund site by a U.S. federal government program established for toxic waste cleanup.
“I hope … we won’t have another Uravan,” said Allex.
People in the area are well aware of the massive mill and tailings cleanup just down the San Miguel River from Naturita. The process took 15 years and $70 million in federal funds and left nothing to suggest that a town of 800 people once stood there. Nothing except tailings, that is.
Allex also understands the potential human costs. “I’m aware that some things went wrong,” she stated, recounting the death of her father, a uranium miner. “It’s not like we don’t know the risks.”
Regional Milling Needs
Mills provide a crucial middle step in uranium’s transformation from raw ore to the product that fuels nuclear power plants. Mining produces an ore that is crushed and processed at the mill, resulting in what is called yellow cake. The yellow cake is then taken elsewhere for enrichment.
“Ores in this part of the country generally have about five pounds of uranium per ton,” explained Glasier, which compares quite favorably to New Mexico and Wyoming uranium ore. The raw rock is ground into sand, with acid added to separate the vanadium and uranium.
“The process is all done in rubberized steel tanks inside the mill, with nothing outside,” said Glasier. “The tailings are what’s left, and here they will be state of the art, with double-lined ponds.”
Glasier also explained that uranium operations are much “better ventilated. It sounds like a hurricane,” reducing the dangers of radon gas to workers. “The equipment is better. The process is cleaner with a lot less emissions.”
Energy Fuels also plans to be a major presence in the area’s re-emerging uranium industry. The company is also seeking permits for a series of mines in Mesa County and San Juan County, Utah, as well as looking at other potential supplies for its Paradox mill.
West End Riches
The West End sits in the Uravan Mineral Belt, one of the richest sources of uranium and vanadium in the country, if not the world. Uranium mining and milling activity in the region extends beyond the Paradox Valley.
Over in Blanding, Utah, the White Mesa Mill is one of the few remaining mills in the country. There are 150 employees at White Mesa now, according to Ron Hochstein, president and chief of operations for Denison Company, the Canadian company that owns the mill. Uranium ore is currently being stockpiled with “processing scheduled to commence in early 2008,” he said.
Opened in 1980 to support the last uranium boom, the White Mesa Mill was designed and built by the same team now working on the Piñon Ridge Mill. White Mesa is currently taking ore from Denison’s three mines in San Miguel County, as well as two other company mines in Utah. “There are a lot of other companies exploring in the area, and we hope they are successful,” notes Hochstein. “We need more uranium ore to process at the mill.”
With a capacity of 2,000 tons per day of ore, White Mesa is “the only operating mill within a 500-mile radius in the heart of the historic uranium production district in the U.S.,” declared Hochstein in a July press release from Denison. White Mesa is also one of only four licensed and operating mills in North America.
However, if Uranium Resources Inc. is successful, the Four Corners is poised to become a major center of uranium milling. The company recently announced plans for an 8,000 ton-per-day mill near the town of Grants, N.M. Large by uranium mill standards, the Grants facility will serve the New Mexico, Colorado and Utah uranium mines and employ up to 200 people.
Hauling is one of the major costs in uranium mining and processing, so the closer the mill is to the mines, the better. During the last uranium boom, the Cotter Corporation and other mining companies in San Miguel and Montrose counties sent material all the way to Canon City. Trucks rumbled through Norwood and Montrose, crossing the Continental Divide along winding mountain roads before reaching the Cotter mill. Glasier and Allex believe Energy Fuel’s proposal will be much safer, at least for the traveling public, especially for people on the previous haul route.
“The uranium is mined and processed in areas of low population, rather than being trucked through high-population areas,” said Allex, declaring it “a win-win” prospect.
“The resource needs to be provided, not just nationally, but worldwide,” she said.
CEC’s Chad Kennard said transportation from the mines to the mills is one of the organization’s chief concerns. Plus, he believes “no federal agency is stepping in to do a cumulative impact analysis of the effects of uranium activities on recreation, water, transportation and other factors. How will it affect the communities at large?”
Piñon Ridge won’t be sprouting overnight. “We’re doing the environmental studies now,” explained Glasier. The company has retained an environmental consulting firm, Kleinfelder of Albuquerque. “It will take one year to obtain the baseline data before the application is submitted to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in late summer 2008.”
Public hearings, comments and the remainder of the public review process follow, with a license anticipated in late summer or fall 2009. “It will take one year to construct after that,” Glasier explained, meaning the plant will not run before the summer of 2010.