Herald Denver Bureau
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
PARADOX - From the road, it looks like a pile of gray rocks. But a closer inspection reveals flakes of yellow and lime green - telltale signs of uranium ore.
The pile and others like it make up some of the 5,000 tons of uranium ore that remains on the surface from Colorado's last boom, according to a Department of Energy environmental study.
Five thousand tons of rock is only a few months of production from a mid-sized mine, but it's enough to concern Travis Stills, a Durango lawyer leading the legal challenge to the Energy department's plan to lease Colorado land for uranium mining.
The Office of Legacy Management, which issues leases on federal uranium lands, cleaned up all its old mine sites by 2001, according to court filings by Andrew Smith, a Justice department lawyer who is representing the OLM.
Piles of waste rock at uranium mines could cause trouble if water runs off them into creeks, said Angelique Diaz, an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency's Denver office. The piles are radioactive and give off radon gas, but not in significant quantities, Diaz said.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety cleans mines that were abandoned before 1977, using mostly federal dollars but also money from state taxes on gas, oil and coal production.
With 17,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, the priority goes to open mine shafts that might be dangerous for hikers, said Loretta Pineda, director of the abandoned mines program.
"I do have some environmental funding, but it's pretty limited," Pineda said.
The BLM has asked the state to put several old mines in the Paradox Valley on its list, Pineda said. She had a project on tap near Uravan a few years ago, but it was put on hold when people started staking claims in the area. Anyone who opened a new mine would have to clean up the old pollution first.
For Stills, the cleanup of the old mines should happen now.
"Five thousand tons of uranium ore sitting on the surface should be somebody's priority," he said.