Judge halts uranium leasing, reverses DOE finding on environment

A federal judge on Tuesday suspended a 42-square-mile federal uranium-leasing program in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties, ruling that it failed to undergo legally required environmental reviews and can’t go forward until it does.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William J. Martinez of Colorado was made in response to a lawsuit by five conservation groups that have sought to halt the Department of Energy’s leasing program. They say it threatens to pollute the Dolores and San Miguel rivers and harm endangered fish downstream in the Colorado River.

In a news release, the groups said the ruling invalidates the department’s approval of the program, suspends its 31 existing leases, bars issuing new leases, and prevents further exploration, drilling or mining at all 43 mines approved under the program until new environmental reviews occur in compliance with federal environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act.

“This is a huge victory for public lands, rivers and wildlife in southwestern Colorado and a major setback for the uranium industry’s efforts to industrialize and pollute the Colorado Plateau,” Taylor McKinnon, public-lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the news release.

But the ruling was shrugged off by an industry official who says the Department of Energy already was planning to do the required review.

“Really, all this court case does is reaffirms that and says, yep, DOE, you have to go do this,” said Curtis Moore, spokesman for Energy Fuels Inc., which holds some of the leases in question and also is continuing to pursue approvals for a uranium mill in Montrose County.

He said that was his initial impression and that he hadn’t yet had a chance to read Martinez’s ruling.

The ruling invalidated the DOE’s 2007 finding that the leasing would have no significant environmental impact, and that a full environmental impact statement was not required. Martinez found that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about possible impacts to the endangered Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail.

The DOE this summer told the court it was planning to do an environmental impact statement, but Martinez indicated his ruling was needed because it otherwise was not bound to complete the review.

Moore said it doesn’t appear the ruling will have a big impact on Energy Fuels’ plans.

He said the company had no immediate plans for mining at its leases. Meanwhile, on Monday it announced its $1.5 million purchase of a 20-year uranium/vanadium mining lease in San Juan County, Utah, which Moore said helps assure the company the 500 tons per day of ore it would need for its proposed Piñon Ridge mill near Naturita.

The DOE will have to consider the mill proposal in analyzing cumulative impacts of its uranium leasing, but Moore said that won’t result in any more permitting requirements for the mill.


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