State mining regulators are trying to determine how many uranium mines are affected by a recent appeals court ruling saying that mines that haven't operated in 10 years must be reclaimed, as required by state law.
Ginny Brannon, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the state Mined Land Reclamation Board also can consider an appeal of the ruling involving a western Montrose County mine.
"We don't know whether the board would want to appeal that. They will be briefed by their lawyer in executive session and at some point make a decision," she said.
The ruling by a three-judge Colorado Court of Appeals panel, announced July 25, requires that the Van 4 Mine be closed and cleaned up.
"The Court recognized the plain language of the statute and clear intent of the legislature. We see this decision as the beginning of the end of the zombie uranium mine era in Colorado," Jeffrey Parsons, senior attorney with the Western Mining Action Project, said in a news release following the ruling. Parson's organization represented Information Network for Responsible Mining (INFORM), Earthworks and Sheep Mountain Alliance in the case.
The mine hasn't produced uranium for 30 years, but Piñon Ridge Mining was issued a permit for it in 1999, releasing the company's predecessor from its permit, according to the appeals court ruling.
In 2014 DRMS approved a five-year period of temporary cessation for the mine, effective 2012.
In 2017 DRMS received a request to approve a second five-year temporary cessation period for the mine.
The board approved the request, and a district court later upheld that decision.
State law allows for back-to-back five-year temporary cessation periods for mines, but says that they must be closed and reclaimed if they don't produce for more than 10 years.
According to the ruling, in 2011 or 2012 the DRMS realized that a large number of mines hadn't been in production for quite some time but were treated as being in intermittent status, something applied to mines forced to operate seasonally usually due to high elevation. The DRMS decided to "reset" such mines to temporary status.
"In other words, the Board felt that a mine was not in a status of 'temporary cessation' until the request for recognition of that status had been approved by the Division or Board. This was (in) error. Under the statute and rules, temporary cessation is a factual status that cannot be 'reset,'" the appeals court ruled.
The state lists 30 permitted uranium mines in Colorado, mostly in Montrose and San Miguel counties, with a few in other counties including Mesa County. About half are listed as being in temporary cessation, and state officials are trying to determine how many of those might be forced into reclamation by the court ruling.
"We're looking at mines not in operation, what's their history and so forth," Brannon said.
Piñon Ridge Mining is a subsidiary of Western Uranium & Vanadium. George Glasier, president and majority owner of both companies, said the company has five other mines in Colorado that won't be affected by the decision. But he wonders how many other mines will be affected.
"Van 4 is insignificant. The decision is significant," he said.
He said mines haven't been operating due to low commodity prices. He said he could have put the Van 4 Mine into production even for marginal profits to keep the permit.
"But we relied on the regulations to say 'you're alright.'
"… If you change all the regulations, you throw out the regulations, how can you rely on the regulations?"
He thinks the ruling could have applications to mines beyond uranium ones, but Brannon disagrees.
"Uranium is a different beast in the sense that operators have been waiting for prices to increase," leaving mines idled for extended periods of time, she said.
Conservation groups said in their news release that several dozen uranium mines on the Western Slope haven't been cleaned up despite ceasing operations in the 1980s.
"It's vital that mines are reclaimed once they're done producing to protect public health, wildlife habitat and the environment," Jennifer Thurston, director of INFORM, said. "When they operate, mines provide important economic benefits, but if they are left unreclaimed once they're done mining, at that point the only thing we get back from them is pollution."
The groups say the Van 4 Mine is located on top of Bull Canyon near the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area, within designated critical habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.