Since radon emissions from uranium tailings and wastewater are regulated by the EPA under the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, this was the only EPA approval required to build and operate the mill, according to an Oct. 27 Energy Fuels press release.
“With the EPA approval, the permitting and environmental risk to our project is now behind us,” Energy Fuels President and CEO Stephen P. Antony said. “This is significant for Energy Fuels and the domestic uranium industry, as it is the first EPA approval of a conventional mill tailings facility since the NESHAP regulations were revised. Achieving this milestone brings Energy Fuels one big step closer to production of American uranium and vanadium.”
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said the EPA attached several “minor” conditions to the approval that specify that there will be no more than two impoundment/evaporation pond facilities in use at any one time; that Energy Fuels must comply with the provisions of regulations, maintain certifications; and that the company must submit a comprehensive water and surface monitoring plan to the EPA.
“We will have no problem in complying with the additional conditions of the approval,” Moore said, adding that Energy Fuels was going to submit the comprehensive monitoring plan soon. Moore went on to characterize the tailings impoundment and evaporation ponds liner system as state-of-the-art, for which where monitoring is key.
“It is a very detailed liner system,” he said. “It uses multiple liners that go underneath the tailings. Within these liners are leak monitors. If an upper liner were to fail, it will be detected and it will be reported and then repaired.”
Moore also dispelled any notion or fear that the mill site and its tailings ponds will be used as a radioactive dumpsite for other radioactive cleanup/mill projects not involved with Energy Fuels. While that may have been the case at other uranium mills outside Colorado, as he understands it, Colorado law prevents anything like that from happening at the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill.
“No, that cannot happen,” Moore said emphatically, of turning the surrounding area into a waste-storage site. “It’s against state law.”
While Energy Fuels and the Telluride-based environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance reached a settlement agreement last September over Energy Fuels’ water-rights application for the mill, the EPA approval still prompted SMA to voice its concerns over the planned uranium mill.
“Our concern with the 40-acre tailings impoundment and 30-acre evaporation pond at the Piñon Ridge Mill location continues to be the great risk to the Dolores River watershed and the contamination of the groundwater in Paradox Valley,” said Hilary White, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “Energy Fuels still has not submitted final, detailed construction plans for the tailings ponds to any agency, and hasn’t demonstrated that they can prevent leaks and radioactive, toxic chemical and heavy metal contamination of the watershed.”
SMA also charges that the EPA issued the permit to Energy Fuels under outdated federal radon regulations that were already, according to an SMA statement, successfully challenged in court. The case settled in 2009, based on an EPA agreement to bring the regulations into compliance with the Clean Air Act. A preliminary draft is expected in January 2012. The current EPA 1980s-era radon regulations contain no monitoring requirements and no emissions-reduction technologies, but to call for a 40-acre limitation on size.
SMA opposed the issuing of the EPA’s NESHAP Subpart W permit during the comment period, charging that the outdated regulations and the rulemaking process were not in place to update them.
“Although we are disappointed with the EPA’s decision to proceed under the outdated radon regulations, we appreciate that they opted to make this approval conditional and required further review,” White said. “We continue to have serious concerns about the Piñon Ridge Mill being permitted under rules that do not satisfy the Clean Water Act.”
With the EPA approval, Moore said, completion of the mill’s permitting process is near completion, with only the construction permit from the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division for non-radioactive air emissions now awaiting approval. This permit is in an advanced stage of review by the Colorado APCD.
“We are hoping to get that permit early next year,” Moore said, adding that once everything is finalized, the company plans to begin construction on the mill –sometime during the middle of next year.”
As the start of construction looms, however, SMA maintains that the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, with bureaucratic hurdles uncleared and uranium prices unpredictable, is unlikely to obtain the financing it needs to take root and thrive.
“Energy Fuels has still not demonstrated that it can build the mill safely, and in a way that will protect the environment,” said White. “Not only do they lack the state permits needed, they continue to lack financing for the mill in the midst of depressed uranium prices.
“It is unlikely that this mill will ever be economically viable.”