DOE sued over uranium leases

DOE sued over uranium leases

By Dick Kamp
Wick Communications Environmental Liaison
Published/Last Modified on Saturday, August 2, 2008 8:27 PM MDT

DENVER —  A newly filed lawsuit accuses the Department of Energy of violating federal law during agency approval of uranium leases in the Uravan mining district in Montrose, Mesa and San Miguel counties.

Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center and Western Mining Action Project in Lyons sued DOE’s Office of Legacy Management in Denver’s U.S. District Court Thursday for failure to follow the National Environmental Policy Act in assessing the environmental impacts of nearly tripling uranium mining leases to over 27,000 acres of land.

“The department has received the complaint and intends to review it carefully,” DOE spokeswoman Joann Wardrip said of the suit.

The suit argues that granting the leases with improper NEPA review, including 6,600

acres of leases to Montrose County-based Energy Fuels Inc., ignores the cumulative impacts of past, present and potential uranium contamination.

The suit also claims the DOE failed to discuss impacts from the proposed Energy Fuels Resources Piñon Ridge uranium mill in the Paradox Valley,  as well as the White Mesa, Utah mill and Canon City mill (currently not operated).

Energy Fuels Resources President and CEO George Glasier said he wasn’t sure how it would be possible for the DOE to discuss impacts at Piñon Ridge.

“We hadn’t even announced the Piñon Ridge Mill at the time the DOE closed the process,” he said. “That’s an interesting question, but how could the DOE do it when they didn’t even know about it?”

Glasier said the mill is not dependent on the four leases it obtained from the DOE and there is limited capacity at the mill in any event.

“Our mill is being built whether we’ve got those leases or not.  … The impact won’t be any different. There’s a limited capacity at the mill. It doesn’t increase the impact by having DOE leases,” he said.

“We think the DOE did the proper review. I think the DOE will definitely prevail in the lawsuit.”

The suit alleges that other uranium leases, such as those on BLM land that are not under oversight by the DOE, will also increase due to the DOE program and impact the environment. It argues that these impacts must also be taken into consideration.

The plaintiffs further argue that the process of site cleanups, both waste and 5,000 tons of uranium ore stored at sites being overseen by the DOE, weren’t subjected to NEPA review to ensure the plans are adequate.

The federal court is asked to require the DOE halt the issuance of leases and start over. The plaintiffs ask the court to demand that DOE address the uranium leasing program — both issuance of new leases and the cleanup of old sites — through the NEPA process by doing proper environmental impact statements, or EIS. An EIS could result in an option of “no action” in the case of issuance of new leases.

The DOE Office of Legacy Management both oversees some portions of cleanup of old contaminated mill tailings as well as issuing leases for uranium mining as part of a 1954 program established by the federal government.

The purpose was to stop allowing certain uranium mining claims to be staked by private parties under the 1872 Mining Act.

Other uranium mines, including Energy Fuels mines being rehabilitated, are still staked on BLM land under the 1872 Act.

After the last uranium boom ended in the early 1980s, leasing declined but the DOE, with a hope of stimulating the industry, said in 2005 that it would re-open claims that were no longer active for new leasing.

Successful bids for 27,000 acres and 38 claims were announced in May and some leases were granted in June with more to be given in the coming months.

The DOE issued a “programmatic environmental assessment” for the uranium leases in June, 2007 determining that uranium mining would have “no significant impact” on the regional environment.

“The DOE’s actions defy logic for a program established to encourage the expansion of uranium mining when we all know the history of contamination and disease that existed in the past in the Uravan Mining district,” Jeffrey Parsons, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Thursday. “The legacy of uranium mining in Colorado has been devastating.”

Parsons said the whole purpose of NEPA was to assess cumulative environmental impacts in a region and, if it appeared as though there would be, to prepare an EIS on specific sites.

“You cannot do a good job at that until you look at a mine’s plan of operation, which they have not done. Thirty-eight mines on 27,000 acres are obviously going to have impacts, the Piñon Ridge mill will be dependent on these mines operating and the mill will have impacts; existing mills already have environmental impacts,” Parsons said.

He said the lawsuit should come as no surprise to the DOE, as the groups have been trying to get a remedy for almost two years.

“We also want them to work with BLM and EPA along with other federal agencies to develop a long-term leasing program based on assessing the cumulative impacts of uranium mining and milling in this region and each agency passes the buck and refuses to take responsibility for it,” he said.

“So, we are asking the court to intervene and to order the DOE Office of Legacy Management to do their job properly.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Denver-based INFORM, statewide Colorado Environmental Coalition, Denver Center for Native Ecosystems, and the national Center for Biological Diversity.

Daily Press Senior Writer Katharhynn Heidelberg contributed to this report.

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