Uranium mining company says there is nothing to fear; opponents don't buy it

02 October 2007 | 05:19 Code : 15487 Geoscience events
Lane Douglas proffers an apple from a gnarled tree whose roots spread only a few....

  Lane Douglas proffers an apple from a gnarled tree whose roots spread only a few dozen feet above the mother lode.It is sweet but also sour, its skin pink on the side that faces the sun.This tree will produce fruit after the uranium beneath it is taken out of the ground, Douglas says. Oats might grow in a field across the dirt road, perhaps with better luck than this year, when a rainy summer still wasn't enough for dryland farming in northern Colorado. The abandoned farmhouse that sits behind the apple tree also will remain, improved somewhat thanks to efforts of the mining company that owns the Earth's bounty below thousands of acres of land here.Douglas, the project manager for Powertech Uranium Corp.'s Centennial Project, will talk gladly for hours about uranium mining, nuclear power and the yellow-flowered rabbitbrush that speckles the prairie. He has PowerPoint slides and uranium fact sheets and a slight Louisiana drawl with which he promises the company will "do something" for the people who own the land nearby.He drives his red Dodge Ram along bumpy dirt roads bordered by barbed-wire fences, some of which hold yellow placards bearing the universal symbol for radioactivity and the words, "No uranium mining in Colorado."Not everyone feels that way, Douglas says. He gestures to the west, toward the home of an elderly woman who doesn't care about uranium mining one way or the other. She lives in Minnesota most of the year and has a collection of abandoned trailer homes on her property near Nunn. She's fine with the mine.A few bumps later, Douglas points to the east, toward the home of Robin Davis, who has become a local crusader against Powertech and the company's mining plans. She is anything but satisfied with what she's learned so far.Davis and a vocal group of concerned residents have made Douglas' job a lot more difficult during the past few months. They worry about their land values, their drinking water and their health, and they have plenty of questions, to which Powertech has not yet provided satisfactory answers.Douglas shrugs -- the movement is more earnest than dismissive -- and says he is trying to help them understand that the company doesn't mean any harm to their land values, the environment or people's health. Powertech just wants to get the resources it owns.The Centennial Project, north of Nunn and between that town and Wellington, contains 5,760 acres of land to which Powertech has purchased mineral rights. The company owns some of the surface as well and is negotiating with other landowners.State law regarding land and mineral ownership places a bizarre burden on private landowners who happen to live near buried natural resources. Under Colorado law, land owners have to make reasonable accommodations for those who own the mineral rights under their land, so the minerals can be extracted.To date, oil and gas companies have presented the biggest headache for landowners in Weld County, which is the state's most prolific producer of oil. Greeley and Weld landowners have gone before the city and county planning commissions to stop expansions of oil and gas production on their property. But the law says they don't really have much say.Much of Weld lies above an ancient geological formation whose composition yields plentiful oil and natural gas. It has been a boon for the county, which derives large amounts of tax revenue from the extraction of those resources. The land of the Fox Hill Formation also contains natural metals, such as molybdenum, selenium and others.In 1978, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad called Rocky Mountain Energy found a large vein of another heavy element: Uranium-238.The company estimates 9.7 million pounds of uranium lie beneath a 15-mile chunk of northern Colorado, a veritable mother lode of resources, especially considering the price of uranium peaked this year at $137 per pound.Powertech bought the mineral rights from a petroleum company, Anadarko Petroleum, which succeeded the railroad subsidiary. The company has every legal right to get the minerals it owns -- it just has to clear several state and local permitting hurdles first.Davis and other opponents, who maintain a Web site called nunnglow.com, actively oppose the company's efforts to get those permits.State and federal lawmakers have even signed on.U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Fort Morgan, said last month that she'd succeeded in getting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its comment period regarding procedures for uranium mining.Powertech's opponents felt somewhat edified, until Powertech and Democratic lawmakers pointed out that the NRC has no permitting authority here, so that comment extension was moot.Colorado is what's known as an "agreement state," which means Colorado and the NRC have a pact in which the state has sole jurisdiction over radioactive materials, including uranium. Several local government entities also have permitting authority, including Weld County's commissioners and planning and zoning commission; the Colorado departments of Public Health and Environment, and Natural Resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.Last week, State Reps. John Kefalas and Randy Fischer, both Fort Collins Democrats, said they were working to ensure that Powertech meets all water safety and environmental protection standards.It will take until December 2009 for Powertech to get all its required permits. Mining would start in July 2010.Douglas acknowledges that he doesn't know what the mining will look like -- Powertech is still figuring that out. The composition of the rock holding the radioactive resource, the average depth of the uranium and many other factors will determine the process of extraction. As of now, it will likely be mostly in-situ recovery, a complicated process using oxygenated water to pump out the uranium.But Douglas does not rule out the possibility of an open pit mine, which has been a major sticking point for Davis and the other opponents.An open-pit mine is just what it sounds: a hole in the ground where miners can easily scoop out the rock. Some of the uranium ore -- the term for the rock in which the element is embedded -- is as shallow as 80 feet below the surface, Douglas said.At such depths, open-pit mining might be a more efficient method of extraction. Douglas said he doubts Powertech would use that process, but he won't make any promises."It would be irresponsible for us, as a publicly traded company, to rule out something that might be profitable," he said.But opponents aren't concerned with Powertech's profits.The uranium at the Centennial Project site is embedded in the sandstone of the Fox Hills Formation, and is relatively low-grade -- about 0.09 percent or lower. That's nine-one-hundredths of a pound, Douglas said."I've held a rock of it in my hand. It's pretty cool," he said.He would have to hold that rock for 10 years to get the same exposure that a radiologist -- an X-ray doctor -- gets every year, Douglas said."It's not something to greatly fear, is my point," he said.But it's not just radioactivity that opponents fear. Such low grades mean large amounts of rock must be mined to get a measurable amount of uranium. That means piles of rock will be taken out of the earth, which likely contain radon gas and other potentially harmful materials.Even forgetting open-pit mining, Powertech's regional opponents have several other concerns.They ask, 'What about the groundwater? What about other metals?'Those questions arise regarding the one way Powertech does promise to conduct its operations: In-situ leaching or in-situ recovery."In-situ" is Latin for "in place." It means the uranium is extracted right where it's found: Inside the strata of sandstone.

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