New West Feature

The Future of Uranium Mining in Colorado

A new, traditional mill is proposed for Western Colorado. Meanwhile, old sites continue to contaminate a creek and water supplies. Will stricter standards prevail?

By Bobby Magill, 10-27-10

  Holding ponds at a uranium processing mill in Uravan, Montrose County, 1972. A new mill is proposed nearby and could be built sometime early next year. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
  Holding ponds at a uranium processing mill in Uravan, Montrose County, 1972. A new mill is proposed nearby and could be built sometime early next year. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

When the Cotter Corp. shut down operations at the Schwartzwalder uranium mine in the mountains above Golden, Colo., in 1999, it was supposed to have prevented any of the radioactive ore from leaching into Ralston Creek.

The creek, which flows below the mine, feeds into the drinking water supply for Denver and its suburb of Arvada.

Earlier this year, Colorado public health officials slapped Cotter with a $55,000 fine after the uranium levels in Ralston Creek were discovered to be seven times the level considered safe for drinking water.

In an act of defiance, Cotter sued the state, claiming it had no evidence the mine was contaminating the creek.

Arvada City Manager Craig Kocian called the suit “legal and technical baloney,” and said a state plan to reclaim the creek should be adequate, but if Cotter prevails in court and doesn’t clean up the creek, Arvada’s drinking water could be threatened.

In the last year, Cotter has become the face of the of troubled, traditional uranium mining and milling industry in Colorado, the future of which is being cast into doubt by low uranium prices and more economical ways of getting uranium out of the ground.

The uranium industry in Wyoming is concentrating on in-situ leach, or solution mining, which dissolves the ore with a chemical solution and pumps it to the surface for processing. One such mine, Powertech Uranium’s Centennial Project, is proposed for Colorado near Fort Collins.

“If you can do it chemically, it’s cheaper simply because there’s less handling of huge volumes of ore,” said Thomas Michael Power, a natural resources economics consultant and research professor at the University of Montana.

But solution mining companies could have trouble extracting uranium in Colorado, too, because water quality standards may be too high for the companies to meet, he said.

In 2008, the Colorado Legislature passed a law requiring companies like Powertech to fully return the groundwater to its original purity after they finish mining. Companies looking for uranium have to first test the groundwater before they begin drilling to prospect for uranium, a regulation Powertech called “fatal” to future mining operations in Colorado.

Power said that recovering all the chemicals and uranium the solution mining companies inject into the groundwater is nearly impossible.

“Nobody has been able to do that,” he said. “The groundwater remains at elevated levels once you’ve engaged in chemical mining.”

Despite those challenges, the economics of solution mining are fast making it the direction the uranium industry may go at the expense of traditional mining, he said.
That’s another reason Cotter and traditional uranium mining and milling companies like it may have an uphill battle to fight in Colorado as they find solutions for the environmental hazards their operations pose, as well as the cleanup they require.

Cotter, a division of San Diego-based General Atomics, operates a uranium mill near Cañon City in southern Colorado notorious for being part of a Superfund site. The mill is one of only two licensed uranium mills in the region.

For decades, Cotter dumped tailings and other byproducts of uranium milling into unlined ponds at a site near Lincoln Park, about two miles south of Cañon City. Uranium leached into the groundwater at the site, contaminating nearby drinking water wells. The tailings ponds became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site in 1984.

Concerned waste from the mill is still contaminating the groundwater and elevating the radon levels in the area. The residents of Lincoln Park and Cañon City are hoping a new law signed by Gov. Bill Ritter this year, HB-1348, will force Cotter to clean up the mill site if it ever wants to operate there again.

The law requires the company to fully decontaminate its Cañon City site before reopening and expanding it.

Soon after being fined for failing to clean up its Schwartzwalder Mine and the passage of the new law, Cotter announced it would eventually decommission part of the mill and later reopen it. The mill has been idle for five years.

Cotter representatives could not be reached for comment.

“They’re a master at playing the regulatory game,” said Matthew Garrington of Environment Colorado, the group which led the campaign to pass the bill. “There needs to be a pretty big spotlight to ensure 1348 gets implemented to the letter of the law. At the end of the day, if Cotter wants to operate in Cañon City, they need to fully clean up that site.”

Residents of western Colorado are closely watching Cañon City as state public health officials consider an application for a new traditional uranium mill proposed for the remote Paradox Valley not far from the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River. State regulators could approve the Piñon Ridge Mill, which would be built by Toronto-based Energy Fuels, Inc., sometime early next year.

Though the new law requiring Cotter to clean up its Cañon City site won’t have a direct impact on Piñon Ridge, “the effect it has had on the permitting process is to call attention to the legacy of destruction and contamination of the uranium industry,” said Hilary White, director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based group critical of new uranium milling in the area.

Many residents living near the proposed mill favor it because of the jobs and revenue it would generate for the area, while members of the Sheep Mountain Alliance want to ensure the Piñon Ridge mill doesn’t contaminate the Paradox Valley’s groundwater like the Cotter mill has contaminated Cañon City’s, she said.

“Do we really want another Cotter with their ‘criminal’ record of repeated contamination and willful violations in our backyard contaminating a major tributary of the Colorado River?” she said.



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