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The Green Glow of Uranium


The idea of a uranium mine within 11 miles of Fort Collins seems like a ridiculous non sequitur. On the one hand, you have the green glow of a university town known for its environmental friendliness. On the other, you have the green glow of a potentially dangerous radioactive mineral used to power nuclear plants.

As farfetched as it sounds, plans by Powertech Uranium to mine in northern Colorado are anything but science fiction. The test wells Powertech has drilled into the sands beneath Weld County are less an experiment than a step. Powertech, says company spokesman Pete Webb, intends to mine for uranium within 11 miles of Fort Collins and 16 miles of Greeley in a space between Wellington and Nunn. As far as Powertech is concerned, it is no longer a question of if, but when they draw ore.

“By the end of 2008, we’ll ask for permission,” Webb says. The ensuing regulatory review will take up to 15 months, meaning actual mining could start as early as 2010.

Once more, the company sees its request to leach uranium from the earth by injecting liquids into the ground or to dig uranium from open-pit mines as fait accompli.

To understand the company’s cockiness, you need only visit www.powertechuranium.com and click on press releases. There, you’ll find this from George M.L. Robinson of R Squared Inc., the company heading the mine permitting process: “State of the art instrumentation and advanced analytical methods are being applied to demonstrate and document that the project will not adversely impact human health or the environment.”

Robinson’s reassurance stands in stark contrast to the warning of the Colorado Medical Society. The state doctors’ organization opposes uranium mining because of potential health risks. Colorado classifies uranium as a hazardous material.

Webb says Powertech will control the hazards. He accuses opponents of a “NIMBY” mentality—as in, “not in my backyard.” Thing is, if you live in Weld or Larimer counties and value quality of life, you have to ask what you want in your extended backyard. If it’s not a uranium mine, it’s past time to start exploring options.

Weld County commissioners, who must issue a permit before the mines can operate, speak only in generalities about the extraction impact. Commissioner Bill Garcia hopes a citizen task force currently updating the county’s long-range plan will give “advice and consent” on the issue.

“It wasn’t something on the radar when I was elected,” Garcia says.

It will be on everybody’s radar for years to come, and it will be politically radioactive, promises Lilias Jarding, a leader of the mining opposition group Coloradans Against Resource Destruction, or CARD.

“It is obvious that they cannot prove that this will not contaminate people’s drinking water,” Jarding says of the injection mining method called in-situ. She adds that open-pit mines in an area of Colorado so breezy it has been considered for wind farms could spread potentially poisonous air pollution across a massive area of northern Colorado with a population of 275,000 people.

“We’re the Saudi Arabia of wind here,” Jarding says.
Four regulatory groups will make the call on project. If any of them disapprove, the mines won’t operate. In addition to Weld County, Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources must sign off. So must the state Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Incredibly, these groups apparently will make their determinations of environmental impact without collecting any raw data themselves. As is the case in all mining permits, the regulators will depend on samples gathered by the mining company.

“We don’t generally run independent sampling,” says Steve Tarlton of the health department. Yet the health department will be making what Tarlton describes as “tough calls.”

Larimer County Commissioner Randy Eubanks says passing judgment without independently gathered data is like “leaving the fox in charge of the hen house.”

“How you obtain samples is as important as how you analyze them,” says Eubanks, who spent 13 years working in the nuclear industry. Eubanks calls in-situ mining a “destructive, unproven mining technique” that will “change the chemical content of the aquifer.”

Webb says Powertech’s water and air samples are gathered according to strict governmental guidelines and the company will operate in a way that is environmentally safe. But with the company’s website already proclaiming victory, suspicion comes naturally for Eubanks, Jarding and groups such as CARD. “We can make a scientific case” against the plans, insists Jarding, a Ph.D. in environmental policy.

That prediction portends a nasty fight in northern Colorado.

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