MONTROSE – Deep divisions in the Paradox Valley community may well remain after the Montrose Planning Commission’s vote Wednesday night on whether to recommend a special use permit for a uranium mill in Paradox Valley.
Friendships have been severed, with some on the side of agriculture in the valley and some who want to hearken back to the good old days of uranium mining their parents and grandparents enjoyed decades ago.
Whatever the decision of the planning commission, Energy Fuels’ request to build a huge mill on 800 acres will be the first built in the United States in almost 30 years, and will have national implications, some say.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said recently that nuclear energy is “the wave of the future” and is encouraging nuclear energy development.
The proposed mill would set a precedent for the rest of the country, said Travis Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, but for the wrong reasons.
“They’re trying to claim it’s the resurgence of the uranium industry and trying to tie it into the nuclear equation,” he said. “It could be a national story because it could be the place where all the stuff goes. It could be looked at as a disposal facility.”
As originally proposed, the mill would only process raw uranium ore from nearby mines. But at a public hearing in Nucla last month, Energy Fuels CEO George Glasier said the mill could also extract uranium from radioactive groundwater.
After Glasier spoke, Stills went to the podium and expressed his displeasure with what he called “a major shift” in policy on what would be processed at the mill.
Only two uranium mills are operating in the U.S. at this time, the White Mesa and Shootaring Canyon mills in Utah, Stills said, both process radioactive wastes.
“A major source of income (for the mills) is waste disposal fees from various folks who have radioactive waste to get rid of,” he said.
The proposed Paradox Valley mill also wants to take in mine waste, not just tailings, he said.
“They should send that to a low level facility, not to a mill tailings cell, which is hazardous enough,” he said.
But Glasier and his many associates have decried health risks of exposure to radioactive materials in the air and water that opponents say could occur because of the mill. Glasier says the industry has made enormous safety advances since the near meltdown of a reactor core at Three Mile Island in 1979.
Glasier said he never had plans for the mill to become a waste disposal facility for nuclear and other radioactive wastes, but was only trying to help the state because of tighter laws on uranium content in drinking water.
New state laws require a new limit on the amount of uranium in drinking water, but in western Colorado, naturally occurring water has higher than those limits, Glasier said.
The mill could have treated municipal water by supplies by loading resin beads with uranium extracted from the water, sending the beads to a disposal facility, after which the beads could be reused.
Without the mill, the water treatment plants will have to install their own resin extraction columns, which is expensive, he said.
“They’ll have no place to dispose of it so they’ll have to ship it to a waste disposal site and they can’t reuse the beads,” he said. “The state wants us to do it, and it would save all these municipalities a great deal of money.”
But Glasier said he dropped the idea of extracting water from uranium because of objections raised at the public hearings.
“Some people were objecting to what would have been a real benefit,” he said. “But those environmental kooks come up with this stuff…They’re saying we’ll process waste, but we have no plans to process anything else but raw uranium ore and the water that comes right out of our mines.”
Other objections to the mill have come from the agricultural community. On to their Web site for Paradox Valley Community Supported Agriculture, William and Vernie Lynn DeMille wrote about how they moved to the valley from Missouri after farming there for 35 years.
“We love farming and we were thrilled when we discovered the Paradox Valley,” DeMille wrote. “Because of its outstanding soil, great climate and protected valley, it is the perfect place to grow excellent crops, both vegetable and fruit.”
Food grown in the valley will be packed with nutrition because of high mineral content of the soil, DeMille said.
During public forums, farmers in the valley objected to the mill, saying they will lose their organic agriculture status because the mill has the potential to pollute the air and water.
Paradox Valley proponents of the mill, most from families who remember the heyday of mining in the area decades ago, scoffed at farmers’ concerns, even displaying a sign at the last public meeting that read, “Uranium dust helps your organics grow” along with “We need jobs on the West End.”
However the planning commission votes, which occurred after the Watch printing deadline, the divisions in the Paradox Valley will apparently not soon heal.