The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled companies must reclaim uranium mines that sit idle for more than 10 years
Recent images of the Van 4 uranium mine show a dark rig towering above a sagebrush and juniper mesa. Beside the scaffolding sit piles of loose white rocks and two metal buildings, one of which drips insulation from its ruptured ceiling. The site is one of western Colorado’s active uranium mines. But it looks deserted.
The operator, Piñon Ridge Mining, LLC, a subsidiary of Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp., is waiting for the price of uranium to rebound before firing up the mine again. The last time that happened was 30 years ago.
Just how long mines like the Van 4 should be allowed to remain open — but idle — has long been a point of contention in Colorado between environmentalists and mine owners.
Environmentalists argue the site should have been cleaned up and restored to sagebrush scrub decades ago.
But the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor that enforces the state’s mining laws, has allowed mining companies to delay tearing down their operations by granting mine owners reclamation exemptions, known as “temporary cessation” permits.
This delay has frustrated environmental advocates. They see the unremediated sites as threatening wildlife habitat, water quality and a new West End economy based on recreational opportunities. They believe companies have relied on temporary cessation permits to sidestep environmental regulations requiring them to close and clean their all-but-shuttered mining operations.
And last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with them.
The court ruled state regulatory board “abused its discretion” by granting two five-year temporary cessation permits to Piñon Ridge Mining, which owns the Van 4 site. After 10 years of sitting idle, the court said, the Van 4 operation must be terminated and the owner must fully comply with reclamation requirements, restoring the site closer to its natural condition.
Phone messages left for the operator of the Van 4 mine seeking a response to the ruling were not returned Wednesday. But the president of the Colorado Mining Association argued it’s important to consider national security risks when deciding whether to close mines.
The court’s opinion could have far-reaching consequences. Owners of the state’s 29 active uranium mines — 16 of which have been granted temporary cessation permits, according to state data — may have to begin tearing down rigs and buildings and testing for radiation. The state does not yet know how many mines are past due for reclamation, according to the court’s interpretation. But it knows there are several.
“Those sites will very likely need to be reclaimed in accordance with this order,” said Ginny Brannon, director of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
The state estimates the federal Department of Energy holds about $14.5 million in bonds that companies front to ensure resources are available to restore closed mining operations.
Radioactive material used for roads, foundations, landscaping in mid-1900s
It turns out more than 100 properties in Durango were missed during a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup in the 1980s of radioactive waste that was once used for the construction of homes, buildings and roads.
Now, more than three decades later, the state of Colorado’s health department says these hot spots that slipped through the cracks need to be cleaned up.
“We’re now looking to raise the awareness of this potential issue in Durango,” said Tracie White, a remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s been on our radar for a while, and we’ve been laying the groundwork. Now, it’s coming into place.”
A cheap and easy material
Durango is no stranger to the issues left behind from the town’s legacy with uranium mining.
In the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park, to reprocess uranium tailings for sale to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb.
After extracting uranium, though, what’s left behind is a gray, sand-like waste product that can be filled with radioactive components, like radium and radon. In Durango, this pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards, enough to fill nearly 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Over the years, people freely used the uranium mill tailings in construction around town, said Duane Smith, a local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor. It was as easy as driving your truck up to the waste pile and taking a load…
The uranium tailings were a cheap, easy material to work with and were used for the foundation of buildings and homes, driveways and roads, including sections of Camino del Rio. The radioactive waste was even used as a substitute for sand in gardens and sandboxes.
The practice went unchecked until the tailings became a major public health concern in the 1970s, which prompted Congress to pass the “Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act” in 1978 to tackle the 24 worst uranium sites around the country.
Durango ranked in the top four.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste had been used in and around Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks, and that it would take years and millions of dollars to remove it all.
Greg Hoch, the city of Durango’s longtime planning director, now retired, said federal government officials went up and down Durango streets surveying for hot spots. In the end, most of the high-risk sites were removed and cleaned up, he said…
But properties were missed, not just evidenced by this recent announcement from the state health department. In 1997, it was discovered that even more hot spots beneath Durango homes and streets remained contaminated by tailings, a discovery that “unsettled” the city at the time, according to The Durango Herald archives.
Records identify 115 properties at risk
This time around, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to spread the word that uranium mill tailings contamination potentially still exists on about 115 properties in and around Durango, but at this point, it’s still a bit of a guessing game.
White, with the state health department, said surveys in the 1980s estimated approximately 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct. While most were cleaned up, there has always been an understanding that some likely escaped the effort, she said.
Recently, however, CDPHE was able to home in on which properties may still pose a risk after records from the 1990s were digitized.
“Now that the records are more easily accessible and searchable, we are able to identify properties that may still have tailings remaining,” White said.
Health officials suspect properties have been passed over for a number of reasons: tailings could have been relocated, properties could have been partially but not fully cleaned or, in some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.
Home buyers and sellers are not required to test for radon or uranium issues. However, if a seller is aware of an issue, he or she would legally have to share that information, said John Wells with the Wells Group.
But ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there’s a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys. And in yet another wrinkle, that cannot happen until a disposal site is secured to take the waste – and there’s no telling when that will happen.