Proposed Colorado uranium mill gets key state go-ahead


Web only: Watch an audio slideshow about the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill.

Colorado took one step closer to kickstarting a new Western uranium boom this Wednesday, when state regulators approved a license for the Piñon Ridge uranium mill. The western Colorado mill -- which could be the first in the nation in over

25 years -- has generated concern among environmentalists and health advocates while sprouting lofty hopes for steady jobs in a region suffering from uranium’s last bust.

HCN continues to keep a close eye on uranium’s rise in the West, as well as its legacy of ongoing health problems and environmental contamination.

Despite the controversy, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment signed off on the mill's radioactive materials license. Opponents' concerns include potential groundwater contamination, limited water supplies and a supposedly lowball remediation bond for post-production clean up.

At $11.1 million, the Piñon Ridge clean-up bond is half that of the Cotter uranium mill in Cañon City, Colo. -- the only other licensed mill in the state.

 Cotter recently upped its bond to $20.8 million, a number that doesn't include remediation of groundwater contamination there. But state clean-up estimates for the Cotter site and surrounding groundwater contamination ring in at $42.8 million. State regulators say the $22 million difference will be covered by increasing the company's bond requirements so taxpayers won't be left to foot the clean up bill, as they have historically. Over $3.4 billion has gone [PDF] to mopping up the remnants of uranium's hot mess around the West -- mostly in the form of taxpayer dollars.

Having cleared the state's first bureaucratic bar, Energy Fuels Resources Corp. must complete a handful of other federal, state and local permits, which may be more difficult to obtain, before breaking dirt in the Uravan Mineral Belt. A county land use permit for the mill remains in litigation. But if Piñon Ridge hits its estimated opening date of 2012, the mill could kick the region's once-thriving uranium industry out of its slumber.

Nathan Rice is an HCN intern.

Photo of the proposed site for the Piñon Ridge mill in the Paradox Valley. Photo credit Nathan Rice.