EPA Asked to Withhold Approval for Dumping Uranium Mill Tailings

Apr 21st @ 10:03 am in News by Scott Staley

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DENVER – Two Colorado citizens groups have asked the EPA to withhold approval of a new uranium mill in Colorado until the agency completes a review and revision of air quality regulations it agreed to finish this year.

As it stands today, the agency is likely to approve a plan to build a tailings dump at the nation’s first new uranium mill in nearly three decades using 1989 Clean Air Act regulations that Congress deemed inadequate and voted to change in 1990. Those regulations allow radioactive uranium ore waste to be dumped without protections provided by specific emissions limits or state-of-the art technologies that could minimize radon releases from the tailing piles, the citizens groups say.

Radon is a radioactive gas that increases the risk of cancer when inhaled and can even impact the health of communities beyond a 50-mile radius, according to EPA studies dating back to the 1980s.

Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride, Colo.-based conservation group, and Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste (CCAT), a citizens group in Cañon City, Colo., submitted comments to the EPA this week asking the agency to withhold its approval of a construction plan for the Piñon Ridge Mill.  The comments are available online here.

The plan, submitted by Toronto-based Energy Fuels, describes a 40-acre impoundment to handle radioactive tailings at the recently approved mill, located in Paradox Valley on Colorado’s Western Slope. The groups say the plan shouldn’t be reviewed until the agency reviews and updates new air quality regulations meant to protect residents from the dangers of radon emitted from uranium mills.

“While we thank the EPA for opening a comment period on this permit, it just doesn’t make any sense to issue any approvals for this mill until the agency reviews outdated air quality protections according to provisions of a legal settlement EPA entered in 2009,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance.

“Our region’s health and long-term economic vitality may be severely damaged from dangerous radon emissions from the Piñon Ridge Mill,” she said. “It’s crucial we have the best, most modern regulations to protect the key natural values that add so many economic benefits to our region. We cannot afford the dangers of uranium milling and mining of the past to be repeated again on the Western Slope.”

A report released last year revealed that recreation, tourism, retiree-income – which all depend on the key natural values of the Western Slope – were the most significant job drivers that helped the region recover from the significant uranium bust of the past.

The EPA is currently reviewing its air emissions program due to the successful settlement of a lawsuit brought by Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste in 2008 concerning radon emissions from uranium tailing piles. While Congress passed Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 to address radon problems from uranium mills, the EPA failed to act on Congress’ directive to review and revise them by 2000, until CCAT filed its legal challenge.

A settlement between EPA and CCAT in 2009 required the EPA to review its regulations to ensure that public health is protected from the dangers of radon emissions from uranium mill tailings.  Current regulations have not been subjected to review for compliance with the Clean Air Act and no technical analysis has been produced by EPA, according to CCAT and Sheep Mountain Alliance.

“The proposal to approve the Energy Fuels application was issued in 2011 under the 1989 regulations.  The EPA is conducting its review and update of the 1989 regulations that began in 2009 under the terms of the settlement agreement that required all technical documents be posted to the agency website.  To date, no technical reports have been produced by EPA.”

Sharyn Cunningham is a long-time member of CCAT who was instrumental in persuading the EPA to agree to update its radon emissions regulations. She said it simply doesn’t make sense for the EPA to approve the plan for handling radioactive tailings at Piñon Ridge Mill until the agency completes its review and update of the radon regulations.

Once built, the mill in the Paradox Valley will crush between 500 and 1,000 tons of uranium ore with a chemical cocktail each day it operates. The production of yellowcake for conversion into nuclear fuel will leave between 499 and 999 tons of radioactive waste behind each day for perpetual government oversight.

“The Piñon Ridge Mill plans to produce 7.3 million of tons of radioactive waste that will emit undisclosed amounts of radon into Colorado’s air,” said Cunningham, whose well water has been contaminated by the uranium mill in Cañon City. “Why wouldn’t the agency charged with protecting our clean air and water take the appropriate action and make sure the regulations our group fought so hard for applies for the nation’s first new mill in decades?”

“The legacy of uranium mining and milling in Colorado is replete with a lack of transparency and cleanups not being done. At the same time, approvals are fast-tracked and safeguards to protect our air and water are given no priority.  It’s time for that legacy to change, and it should begin with the EPA.”

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) radiation regulators issued the radioactive materials license for the Piñon Ridge Mill in January.

Currently, those regulators are arguing in Denver District Court that the Sheep Mountain Alliance lacks legal standing to challenge the state’s decision despite allegations that regulators violated state and federal law when they approved the new mill.

The same radiation regulators are employing the same argument in a legal challenge filed by CCAT over the state’s failure to protect public health through careful planning and adequate bonding while demolishing and closing a uranium mill site in Cañon City – a Superfund site that state radiation regulators have been in charge of cleaning up since the late 1980s.

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Sheep Mountain Alliance is a grassroots citizens organization dedicated to the preservation of the natural environment in the Telluride Region and Southwest Colorado.

Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste is a grassroots organization made up of local residents dedicated to make sure the cleanup of the Cañon City uranium mill protects public health, lives and the taxpayers of Colorado.