Colo. judge upholds uranium mining rule

Posted: Jul 17, 2012

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Uranium mine

A Colorado judge has upheld a suite of regulations governing "in-situ leach" uranium recovery operations in the state.

On Friday, Denver District Judge Christina Habas tossed a lawsuit by Vancouver, British Columbia-based Powertech Uranium Corp. The company's 2010 complaint accused state officials of being too stringent and violating the rulemaking process.

But Habas said the state's Mined Land Reclamation Board was within its right to approve the rules under a 2008 state law. She also dismissed claims that the board approved certain standards without enough industry input.

"In this case, the Board sought and received comment and input from Powertech throughout the rulemaking process, and prior to deliberations on proposed additional language," Habas wrote in her opinion. "Powertech has not established that any issues were not raised early in the process, or that they had no opportunity to address those rules."

At issue is a uranium mining technique called in-situ leach or in-situ recovery (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2011). It usually involves injecting water with oxygen and sodium bicarbonate to free uranium underground.

Environmentalists say the process contaminates water supplies. The industry, however, says in-situ recovery is a cleaner and safer way of extracting uranium, which is necessary to fuel nuclear power plants. The process has become the most popular way of extracting uranium in the United States and many places around the world.

Colorado's rules, promulgated in 2010, require the industry to restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions or better. They placed in-situ operations under the same regulatory system as other hardrock mines in the state. They also require companies to collect baseline water quality data during prospecting (Land Letter, Aug. 19, 2010).

The company's 2010 complaint said the rules fail to "recognize and consider the value of groundwater and costs associated with groundwater restoration."

"No additional environmental benefit will be achieved without excessive and unnecessary consumption of groundwater or water from some other source and expenditure of funds which are contradictory to the purposes of the Act," it said.

While the uranium mining industry said it pursued the lawsuit in search of fairer standards, community groups took it as an effort to dodge key environmental protections (Land Letter, Nov. 18, 2010).

"The Colorado uranium mining industry is wrong to keep fighting water quality protections and better public involvement. The people of Colorado have a right to be heard and will not accept mining projects that cannot protect the water," said Jeff Parsons, an attorney with the Western Mining Action Project who represented community groups that intervened on behalf of the state.

He added, "The Mined Land Reclamation Board and Department of Natural Resources deserve great credit for vigorously defending the case."

Last year, Powertech said it would hold off on the controversial Centennial Project in Weld County, Colo., and instead focus on the Dewey-Burdock uranium mine in South Dakota. It blamed the sagging uranium market in the wake of Japan's nuclear meltdown.

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