There are ample reasons to reject permit for new Montrose County uranium mill
By Marv Ballantyne
In Montrose County, you don’t need a Geiger counter to find the toxic legacy left by uranium mills.
Just look for the bright yellow signs surrounding the former Uravan Mill site, warning that the area contains radioactive materials. There’s also the hillside where an entire town was razed so contamination could be cleaned up.
I’ve driven by that site many times in the 30 years I’ve lived and worked in Montrose County. The Uravan site is not alone. The toxic legacy of uranium mills lingers at many other sites scattered across Colorado. At most former uranium mill locations, groundwater is so contaminated it may be decades before water quality returns to normal.
As Colorado continues to grapple with that legacy, a new mill is proposed for a yet-unspoiled spot in Montrose County. The proposed Piñon Ridge Mill has many on the Western Slope wondering whether Colorado is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
If built, the Piñon Ridge Mill will bathe more than 500 tons of finely pulverized uranium ore each day with a cocktail of sulfuric acid and other chemicals to produce unrefined “yellowcake” that eventually would fuel nuclear reactors.
The result will be a few pounds of yellowcake that will most likely go to Asian countries, developers of the new mill said in recent story in The Denver Post. What we’ll be left with is hundreds of tons of radioactive waste permanently stored directly over groundwater that feeds the Dolores River. Famous among river runners, the Dolores feeds the Colorado River — a crucial water source for Americans in Arizona, Nevada and California.
Energy Fuels Inc., the Canadian company proposing the mill, promises its operations at the mill won’t contaminate our water and our landscapes. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulators are charged with determining whether the promises are hollow, or backed by data. Their decision is expected soon.
However, a report from Stratus Consulting raises serious questions. That report reveals the company’s planned monitoring system may not detect pollution until it’s too late. It also pointed out that state regulators have recognized several problems with the plans — problems Energy Fuels has yet to remedy.
The report also reveals serious trouble for taxpayers. The consultants concluded that it would likely cost several tens of millions of dollars to clean up the mill once it is done operating — a much higher figure than the $12 million that Energy Fuels says it has to front. This is not an academic exercise. Since the early 1980s, taxpayers have spent about $950 million to clean up contaminated uranium mills in Colorado alone.
That isn’t the only report that reveals problems with the mill. Another one indicated plans for the proposed uranium facility fail to meet state standards to confine the toxic waste generated at the mill.
Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency points out the large-scale regional impacts that could come from the mill. Those include the possibility that wind and water will disperse radioactive waste, potentially reaching drinking water sources. That same waste would also release radon, a radioactive gas that causes lung cancer and can affect the health of people more than 50 miles away, according to the EPA.
It’s true the mill could bring a small surge of economic activity to local small towns.
But haven’t we learned from the boom-bust cycles of the past? Since the early-1980s — when the local uranium industry went “bust” — this community has seen gradual growth in the businesses of agriculture, tourism, hunting, camping, rock climbing, rafting and associated outdoor activities. The market for second homes and retirement homes in nearby Telluride and Montrose has also developed.
Indeed, a report recently released shows those important economic activities created a significant amount of jobs when the uranium industry died in the early 1980s, and they could suffer if the new mill is built.
The potential for more growth from those economic activities is excellent if we don’t “kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” That is, as long as we protect the natural beauty, clean air, water and friendly community that draw people and investment.
Given the state’s long legacy of uranium mill contamination, the taxpayer-funded cleanups and the questions surrounding the ability of this Canadian company to prevent the contamination of the past, I believe the mill would inflict immensely more economic damage than it’s worth.
And I don’t need a Geiger counter to know that.
Marv Ballantyne is a retired real estate appraiser in Montrose. He is a board member and past president of Western Colorado Congress.