With most of the necessary approvals in place, the Piñon Ridge mill got off to a good start when Energy Fuels received its radioactive materials license from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in January. In addition to paving the way for the construction and operation of the nation’s first conventional uranium mill in decades, that decision sparked a lawsuit from Sheep Mountain Alliance, the Telluride grassroots environmental organization, seeking revocation of the license on grounds that the state radiation regulators violated key federal and state laws during the licensing review process.
Energy Fuels announced plans to further expand and consolidate its uranium and vanadium mines in preparation for the mill’s scheduled 2013 opening. In April, the company updated its mineral resource estimates on its two primary mines, the Whirlwind and Energy Queen Mines, as well as on its smaller San Rafael project.
The updated estimates resulted in a measured mineral increase of about 27 percent, from 5.1 million pounds of uranium to more than 6.4 million pounds. Inferred mineral resources increased by approximately 18 percent, from 3.7 million pounds to over 4.3 million pounds. Energy Fuels officials said the company received a strong market validation of its business model when it secured $11.5 million in financing in March.
With everything seeming to go in favor of uranium mining and milling in the region, however, a U.S. District Court Judge halted the U.S. Department of Energy’s 42-square-mile Uranium Leasing Program on Oct. 18, citing the DOE’s refusal to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement analysis in 2008.
That 53-page ruling suspended each of the program’s 31 existing leases, and stopped the DOE from issuing new leases to explore, drill, and mine within the area of the program until new environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act are completed.
While the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill is not a part of the Uranium Leasing Program – the mill is slated to be built on private land in the Paradox Valley – it would most likely be used to process any significant amounts of uranium ore mined in that area.
By halting exploration and mining on those 31 nearby federal leases, the question loomed: Would the decision harm the mill’s viability in the region?
Energy Fuels immediately said no.
“We were probably planning to do some assessment work or drilling at some point this year to see what minerals were left there,” said Energy Fuels’ spokesman Curtis Moore. “But really, that decision has no impact on the planned operation of the mill.”
While the lawsuit slowed uranium exploration down on federally owned tracts of land in the West End, it didn’t seem to slow down Energy Fuels. The company announced that it would be acquiring Titan Uranium Inc., making it one of the world’s largest holders of conventional uranium. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency handed the company its approval for the mill’s tailings and evaporation ponds and then, in December, the Colorado Court of Appeals denied a legal challenge by Sheep Mountain Alliance, and upheld the mill’s county-issued Special Use Permit.
As groundbreaking for the mill draws near, with operation planned for 2013, along with several outstanding lawsuits, the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill will undoubtedly stay in the headlines in years to come.