U.S. District Judge William Martinez orders halt to the DOE approval of exploration, mining and all other activities on 31 leases in southwestern Colorado

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From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

U.S. District Judge William Martinez ordered DOE officials to stop approving exploration, mining and all other activities on 31 sites leased to uranium companies. The ruling affects about 25,000 acres southwest of Grand Junction along the Dolores and San Miguel rivers. A 53-page opinion filed late Tuesday said the DOE “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in failing to analyze site-specific impacts” on people and the environment — especially given the history of uranium mining in the region. Martinez also found DOE officials violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists about the impact of leasing uranium lands.

The decision means federal overseers of the nation’s push to develop fuel for nuclear energy must proceed far more carefully and conduct a detailed analysis — with full public participation — of the likely effects that renewed uranium mining and milling would have on air, land, water and people…

State health regulators this year issued a final permit, which local residents are challenging in court. The mill proposal led to several companies expressing interest in mining uranium. DOE officials responded by reconfiguring lease tracts in 2007, then issuing leases for 31 tracts in 2008 to six companies — Cotter Corp., Golden Eagle Uranium, Energy Fuels Resources, Gold Eagle Mining, U.S. Uranium Corp. and Zenith Minerals. The DOE has estimated 13.5 million pounds of uranium ore could be extracted and began approving exploration plans on five lease tracts in 2009…

It is unclear whether the agency will appeal the judge’s decision, said Laura Kilpatrick, manager of the DOE Office of Legacy Management’s uranium leasing program.

More coverage from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit County Citizens Voice. From the article:

The court ruled that the U.S. Department of Energy acted arbitrarily and capriciously” by failing to analyze site-specific impacts when it approved a leasing program on 42 square miles of federal land in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties. The Energy Department approved the leasing program under an environmental assessment, concluding with a formal “Finding of No Significant Impact.” A coalition of environmental groups challenged the approval and asked the court to order an in-depth environmental impact statement based on the potential for the mining and related activities to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Judge Martinez declined to go that far, instead remanding the decision back to the energy department with orders to conduct a study that considers site-specific impacts. According to the ruling, the Energy Department has indicated it will do a complete environmental impact statement…

Conservation groups called this week’s decision a major victory for clean air, clean water and endangered species on public lands. “We are pleased that Judge Martinez agreed with the groups, as well as local governments, who have been requesting the federal government take responsible steps to disclose the full range of impacts of mining uranium on public lands in combination with the impacts from Energy Fuels’ proposed uranium mill,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance…

The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity and Sheep Mountain Alliance sued the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management in July 2008 for approving the program without analyzing the full environmental impacts from individual uranium-mining leases across more than 20,000 acres, and for failing to ensure protection of threatened and endangered species before authorizing the program. Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Travis Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center, Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project and Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Update: From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A federal judge on Tuesday suspended a 42-square-mile federal uranium-leasing program in southwestern Colorado over concerns potential environmental impacts have not been adequately considered. The ruling was made in response to a lawsuit brought by five conservation groups that sought to halt the Department of Energy’s leasing program, which they say threatens the Dolores and San Miguel rivers.

Here’s the release from the Center of Biological Diversity (Taylor McKinnon), The Sheep Mountain Alliance (Hillary White) and Rocky Mountain Wild (Josh Pollack):

In a major victory for clean air, clean water and endangered species on public lands, a federal judge on Tuesday halted the Department of Energy’s 42-square-mile uranium-leasing program that threatened the Dolores and San Miguel rivers in southwestern Colorado. Five conservation groups had sued to halt the leasing program, charging that the Department of Energy was failing to adequately protect the environment or analyze the full impacts of renewed uranium mining on public lands.

“We are pleased that Judge Martinez agreed with the groups, as well as local governments, who have been requesting the federal government take responsible steps to disclose the full range of impacts of mining uranium on public lands in combination with the impacts from Energy Fuels’ proposed uranium mill,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “This is an important ruling that will help ensure that any uranium mining and milling that may take place in the Dolores River watershed is protective of the environment and human health. We look forward to the Environmental Protection Agency’s leadership in disclosing the full impacts of uranium activity in this important watershed.”

The 53-page ruling invalidates the Department’s approval of the program; suspends each of the program’s 31 existing leases; enjoins the Department from issuing any new leases; and enjoins any further exploration, drilling or mining activity at all 43 mines approved under the program pending satisfactory completion of new environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

“This is a huge victory for public lands, rivers and wildlife in southwestern Colorado and a major setback for the uranium industry’s efforts to industrialize and pollute the Colorado Plateau,” said Taylor McKinnon, public-lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Department of Energy has thumbed its nose at environmental laws for too long; today’s ruling is a big course correction.”

Conservation groups challenged the Department’s current leasing program for not complying with the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. In July the Department attempted to thwart the lawsuit by initiating a new “environmental impact statement” for the program but continued to administer the program under its prior flawed approval.

Uranium mining and milling resulting from the lease program will deplete Colorado River basin water and threaten to pollute rivers with uranium, selenium, ammonia, arsenic, molybdenum, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, vanadium and zinc. Selenium and arsenic contamination in the Colorado River basin from abandoned uranium-mining operations have been implicated in the decline of four endangered Colorado River fish species and may be impeding their recovery.

“Even small amounts of some of these pollutants, like selenium, can poison fish, accumulate in the food chain and cause deformities and reproductive problems for endangered fish, ducks, river otters and eagles,” said Josh Pollock of Rocky Mountain Wild. “It is irresponsible for the Department of Energy to put fish and wildlife at risk by allowing uranium leases without adequate analysis of necessary protections to prevent pollution.”

The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity and Sheep Mountain Alliance sued the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management in July 2008 for approving the program without analyzing the full environmental impacts from individual uranium-mining leases spread over 20,000 acres and for failing to ensure protection of threatened and endangered species prior to authorizing the program. The Department refused to conduct a full EIS analysis in 2008, instead issuing a FONSI (“finding of no significant impact”), which was also struck down as part of the court ruling.

Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Travis Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center, Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project and Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Download a copy of the ruling here.

More nuclear coverage here and here.

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