Updated Sept. 28, 2007
Early last year, Robin and Jay Davis bought 80 acres of rolling prairie in north-central Colorado. As is often the case in Western states, the "split estate" property included only the surface rights, not the rights to any minerals that might lie beneath the land. So before they signed the deal, the couple carefully researched potential mineral development. "We looked into oil, gas and coal," Robin Davis says. "Even diamonds." Deciding that the risk was negligible, they bought the land, planning to board horses and open a riding school.
Then, last fall, a Canadian-owned energy company informed the Davises and their neighbors that it wanted to extract not coal or natural gas, but uranium from beneath their property. "When we got a letter about it, we thought it was a joke," Robin Davis says. "Uranium mining? Here? Yeah, right."
But Powertech (USA) Inc. is serious. The company recently bought 5,760 acres of mineral rights near the high-tech mecca of Fort Collins. Powertech hopes to extract about 8 million pounds of uranium, worth nearly $700 million at current market prices, mostly through in-situ recovery, which involves injecting a solution underground to dissolve uranium.
In-situ uranium projects are on tap for other places in the West as well, including New Mexico, and Powertech is exploring for uranium in South Dakota and Wyoming. But in many ways, Powertech's Colorado proposal is different. The West's uranium mining has historically taken place in sparsely settled deserts, not near booming urban centers. Affected residents have been mostly poor and rural, and opposition has often been slow to develop. About 300,000 people live within 30 miles of Powertech's proposed operations; Weld County, in which the project is located, is one of the 50 fastest-growing counties in the nation. Universities and computer companies in Fort Collins and nearby Greeley have attracted well-educated academics and scientists, some of whom own homes and land near the project site, and they've organized a robust grassroots resistance.
Their biggest fear? Contamination of the area's groundwater. Powertech plans to drill deep into an aquifer that supplies local homes and farms. In-situ processing, say critics, could do more than just ravage the surface of the land: It could permanently taint groundwater with heavy metals and radioactivity. "We can live without a lot of things," says Robin Davis, "but water is not one of them."
The countryside around Powertech's planned operation is mostly shortgrass prairie, dotted with sagebrush and golden blooms of rabbitbrush. Swainson's hawks soar overhead; meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds perch on fenceposts. A few old farmhouses stand amid corn and wheat fields, but most of the homes are new, tidy and moderately sized, on 40- to 80-acre plots. The occasional fencerow, house or pickup sports a bright yellow sign with a black radiation symbol and the words "No Uranium Mining in Colorado. www.nunnglow.com." (The closest town is the farming hamlet of Nunn, whose water tower displays the slogan "Watch Nunn Grow." Opponents have suggested changing the last word to "Glow.")
Powertech's project would be the first use of in-situ extraction techniques in Colorado, beyond a few tests in the 1970s, and the state is scrambling to get up to speed before Powertech submits permit applications in late 2008.
The company is also considering some open-pit mining, but the geology of the Nunn area is mostly suited to in-situ recovery. Many of the uranium ore deposits lie beneath the water table in sandstone and are confined above and below by impermeable mudstone. Workers would drill a grid of wells 50 to 150 feet apart and pipe a sodium bicarbonate solution into the underground ore. The alkaline solution dissolves the uranium, and is then pumped to the surface and piped to a mobile processing facility. The pure uranium adheres to resin beads, which are trucked to a mill. Then the uranium is stripped off and processed into "yellowcake," the raw material for the fuel rods used in nuclear power plants.
In groundwater, the sodium bicarbonate solution dissolves not only uranium, but also heavy metals such as molybdenum and selenium. Uranium can cause kidney problems and increase cancer risk. In minute doses, molybdenum and selenium are essential nutrients. In higher amounts, molybdenum can cause joint pain and liver dysfunction in humans and birth defects in animals. Selenium can damage the nervous system, and in livestock it can cause reproductive failure and "blind staggers," marked by impaired vision, aimless wandering and even paralysis.
Although in-situ recovery is more economical and safer than traditional open-pit mining, it "tend(s) to contaminate the groundwater," according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report. That's why the government will not permit in-situ projects in drinking water aquifers. Powertech plans to drill into the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifer, which supplies local drinking and irrigation water. The company says that the portions of the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifer it wants to use are already unsafe for drinking due to high mineral levels. It plans to seek exemptions from the Environmental Protection Agency; the project can't proceed unless the agency officially declares those parts of the aquifer undrinkable.
Even if Powertech gets exemptions, it still must prove that its operations won't cause lasting harm to any groundwater, drinkable or not. But that may not be easy: No in-situ uranium project has ever succeeded in restoring the surrounding groundwater to its original baseline condition. Last fall, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times examined 32 permits for south Texas in-situ projects, most closed in the '80s and '90s, and reported that none were able to meet all of the groundwater restoration goals in their original permits. Some met the specification for one mineral but found ten- and twenty-fold increases in others.
In Wyoming and Nebraska, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relaxed some restoration goals for in-situ well fields after the operations could not meet all of the water-quality standards specified in the original permits. "Those (lower) standards are still protective of human health and the environment," says William von Till, chief of the Uranium Recovery Licensing Branch. And, he adds, the relaxed standards applied only to the exempted portions of the aquifers. The drinkable water outside those areas remained safe: "We are not aware of any instance where in-situ uranium milling has impacted a water well user."
The history of in-situ recovery, though, provides many examples of accidents and unexpected results: pump failures, breaks in underground pipes, wastewater pond failures, water movement within aquifers. "There are lots of problems associated with any well operation that could breach the integrity of an aquifer and spread contamination," says Eric Eidsness, a Reagan-era appointee to the EPA who was assistant administrator for water programs. "It just happens."