Energy department wants to continue uranium leasing

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to continue a suspended program involving 25,000 acres of uranium lease tracts in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties, according to a final programmatic environmental impact statement the agency released Friday.

The program covers 31 lease tracts, including 29 that are leased and two that are not. No mining is occurring on any of the leases now. The DOE’s preferred alternative calls for continuing to manage the program for 10 more years or another reasonable period of time, the agency said in a news release.

A decision is expected no sooner than April 21.

In the environmental impact statement, the agency also considered other options, including one in which it would terminate all the leases and cancel the program.

The DOE previously conducted an environmental assessment for the program and determined an impact statement wasn’t required. However, a federal judge ruled that the agency violated environmental law by failing to do an impact statement.

The judge suspended the existing leases, barred issuing new ones and prevented further activity at 43 uranium and vanadium mines approved under the program until the new environmental review occurs.

However, he later agreed to let DOE do work on the lands that is needed to complete that review, or that entailed mine reclamation or compliance with state and other regulatory agency requirements.

The leases are spread across about 42 square miles in the Uravan Mineral Belt. Conservationists contend the program threatens to pollute the Dolores and San Miguel rivers and to harm endangered fish downstream in the Colorado River.

Hilary White of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, one of the groups that took the matter to court, said she expects the DOE to adopt its preferred 
alternative in its decision.

“Essentially that’s their most open-ended alternative and we consider that unacceptable,” she said.

“We are disappointed. The large numbers of public comments asked DOE to reserve the uranium safely in the ground. Uranium experts admit there is enough ore above ground to satisfy the minimal domestic demand for the foreseeable future. It appears the DOE is out of touch with current economic conditions.

“We will continue to pressure the DOE to focus on clean, renewable energy and not take us backwards to a toxic legacy.”

Some of the leases are held by Energy Fuels, which last year received a radioactive materials license from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to build the Piñon Ridge uranium and vanadium processing mill in Montrose County.

Energy Fuels Chief Executive Officer Steve Antony said his company had “expected a positive result” from the DOE.

“They were forced to obviously substantiate what they had in place already and that’s what the EIS did.”

If the DOE proceeds with its preferred alternative it would allow Energy Fuels to move forward with any plans on its leases, he said.

“Given the low market prices currently now, I have to honestly say it’s not a top priority, but it is a priority to put it back in the planning cycle.”

Seventeen of the lease tracts are in Montrose, 11 are in San Miguel County, two are in Mesa County and one straddles the Montrose/San Miguel county line. Lease tracts range from 25 acres to about 4,000 acres in size.

Other companies holding leases include Golden Eagle Uranium LLC; Cotter Corp.; Gold Eagle Mining Inc.; and Colorado Plateau Partners.

In 2008, the DOE executed new lease agreements with existing leaseholders for 13 of the tracts, while offering the remaining lease tracts through a competitive solicitation process. One of the alternatives it evaluated for its EIS would continue the leasing program in the case of the 13 leases while terminating the others.

The EIS may be found at http://www.energy.gov/nepa.


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