The U.S. Department of Energy is preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the environmental impacts of its Uranium Leasing Program on approximately 25,000 acres of land in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties.
It will host four public scoping meetings next week in the region, where public comment will be taken; the public scoping deadline to prepare the new statement has been extended from Aug. 22 to Sept. 9.
The DOE, which announced in June it was preparing the PEIS to study and analyze any “reasonably foreseeable” environmental impacts, including site-specific impacts, of the range of alternatives for management of the Uranium Leasing Program, administers tracts of land for the exploration, development and extraction of uranium and vanadium ores.
The intent to prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement comes after the DOE issued its July 2007 Programmatic Environmental Assessment, and then implemented the Uranium Leasing Program in the southwestern Colorado region. To implement that program, the agency entered into new agreements for 31 lease tracts and approved both mineral exploration plans on some of those leases and reclamation-in-lieu-of-royalties plans. (Currently, 29 tracts are actively held under lease; the remaining two tracts are not leased.) At that time, upon review of each of the plans in accordance with its National Environmental Policy Act regulations, the DOE determined that all plans were excluded from further environmental evaluations.
Since 2007, the agency has not received mining plans from any program lessees, and no mining activities are currently being performed on the leased tracts of land.
All of the tracts are located in four geographical areas, including the Gateway, Uravan, Paradox Valley and Slick Rock areas. The Gateway lease tracts are located on the tops and side slopes of Outlaw and Calamity mesas; surface runoff from those areas travels through Maverick and Calamity creeks and finally into the Dolores River.
The Uravan lease tracts in Montrose County are located on the tops and slopes of Spring Creek, Atkinson and Club mesas near Uravan. Both the Dolores and San Miguel rivers flow in the valley below these tracts.
The Paradox Valley lease tracts are in Montrose and San Miguel Counties, in a broad valley flanked by the high plateaus of Monogram Mesa and Long Park. The Slick Rock lease tracts are located near the historical community of Slick Rock, an area where the land surface is deeply incised by the Dolores River and its tributaries.
Land uses on and around these Program lease tracts have included mining, oil and gas exploration, timber harvesting, recreation, agriculture, and grazing.
With the Canadian company Energy Fuels, Inc., planning to open its Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in the Paradox Valley by 2013, which may open the region to even more mineral mining, and with uranium at a relatively low price, DOE Leasing Program Manager Laura Kilpatrick said the time is right to prepare a PEIS on the affected lease tracts, and to analyze the consequences of ongoing activities, support-agency planning, assess the need for mitigation and/or fully disclose the potential environmental consequences of activities in the area.
The goal, for the PEIS, is to focus in on the right management alternative for the remaining four years of the 10-year EA time period. “We recently received more inquiries for exploration in the area,” Kilpatrick said. “We decided the timing was right to do more environmental work. This is being done as part of the [2007 environmental assessment], which says much more environmental NEPA work needs to be done in the future.”
Instead of spending money to assess leases individually as mining plans are submitted, Kilpatrick said the timing is right to assess all the leases at one time, which will save taxpayers money in the long run.
“It really makes the most sense,” she said, “from a taxpayer standpoint, because it will cost less. If we do one at a time, it also makes looking at the overall impact very difficult. It’s the right time to evaluate all the impacts including transpiration impacts. Do we have other issues, like being close to communities? Noise issues? Sand and dust issues?”
Furthermore, Kilpatrick said the DOE has no licensing authority, neither for the planned uranium mill nor to give licenses for uranium mining, but rather has control only of its own leasing program.
“The only thing we would look at with the mill is transportation issues,” Kilpatrick said. “We don’t look at whether or not we should have the mill. We can only work with transportation issues, and we want to know the answers before the mill is built.”
And while Kilpatrick says the agency’s decision to draft the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement is well-timed, with low activity on its program leases, and has been in the works since its current program was drafted, local environmental groups claim the decision to go forward with more assessments is based on an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2008.
The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Center for Native Ecosystems and Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the DOE and Bureau of Land Management in July 2008 for approving the program, allegedly without analyzing the full environmental impacts that could come from individual uranium mining leases.
According to a press release issued by the environmental groups on July 26, uranium mining and milling resulting from the lease program will deplete Colorado River basin water and could pollute rivers with uranium and selenium as well as a host of other toxic minerals. Selenium and arsenic contamination in the Colorado River basin from abandoned uranium-mining operations, according to the press release, have been implicated in the decline of four endangered Colorado River fish species, and may be impeding their recovery.
“Combined with the activities in the DOE leasing tracts, the impacts of new mining on unpatented claims in the area and the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in Paradox Valley all add up to serious new concerns for water quality,” Sheep Mountain Alliance Executive Director Hilary White said in the press release. “We have to understand and mitigate existing contamination problems in the area before the government allows new mining to ramp up.”
“The Department of Energy knows its previous environmental reviews fell short, and yet leasing for uranium operations has moved forward. That badly flawed approach jeopardizes human health, wildlife and two of the West’s most precious rivers,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Taylor McKinnon. “The feds’ refusal to revoke approvals and leases they’ve admitted are flawed is inherently dishonest and will keep everyone in court.”
In response to those comments, Kilpatrick said the DOE only has 31 leases, which is relatively small compared to the number of mines on Bureau of Land Management land in the region.
“We have 31 leases in that area and every single unpatented mining claim left on our leases had to be cleaned up,” she said. “They are totally clean. We have eight mines that could be resumed; that’s it. There is not another hole out there that belongs to any of our leases. There are 1,500 mines on BLM land. We have little teeny leases compared to the rest of the acreage.”
Possible Results of New Environmental Assessment
The proposed Environmental Assessment of the lease tracts is being completed to decide whether or not to continue the DOE’s uranium lease program for the remainder of the 10-year period – and if, upon completion of the assessment, it decides to continue the program, to then determine which management alternative it should adopt.
Here’s a list of proposed management alternatives the DOE could choose upon completion of the impact statement:
• The DOE would terminate the leases for the leasing program, with lessees required to reclaim operations on their respective leases. Once final reclamation is completed, the DOE would continue its management of the withdrawn lands, without leasing, in accordance with applicable requirements.
• The DOE would terminate the leases for the program and lessees would be required to reclaim operations. Once final reclamation is completed, all lands would be restored to the public domain, with the approval of the BLM, and the leasing program would end.
• The DOE would continue the program as it existed before July 2007, with the then-active 13 leases continuing to operate for the remainder of the 10-year period. For those 13 leases, DOE would analyze, among other things, the reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts, including the site-specific impacts, of leasing, exploration, mining activities (including any resumption of mining activities that were previously approved), transportation, and reclamation, as well as cumulative impacts resulting from the incremental impacts of those actions when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions. DOE would explore reasonable mitigation measures to avoid or minimize potential environmental impacts.
• The DOE would continue the lease program as outlined in the July 2007 Environmental Assessment for the 10-year period. For all of those Uranium Lease Program leases, the lessees would be allowed to file plans to explore for and mine uranium and vanadium ore reserves on their respective tracts, and to engage in reclamation activities on those tracts. DOE would analyze, among other things, the reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts, including the site-specific impacts, of leasing, exploration, mining activities (including any resumption of mining activities that were previously approved), transportation, and reclamation, as well as cumulative impacts resulting from the incremental impacts of those actions when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions.
• The DOE would continue the program exactly as it was approved in the July 2007 assessment and would continue to approve plans by lessees as it has done since. This alternative would be the “no action” alternative in the impact statement.
Make Yourself Heard
DOE officials will host public scoping meetings and invite comments on the scope of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.
The first meeting takes place in Montrose, at the Montrose Pavilion, Monday, Aug. 8, 6:30-9 p.m.
The second meeting takes place in Telluride Tuesday, Aug. 9, 6:30-9 p.m., at the Sheridan Opera House; the third meeting takes place in Naturita on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 6:30-9 p.m., at the Naturita Community Building.
The fourth public scoping meeting will take place in Monticello, Utah, Thursday, Aug. 11, 6:30-9 p.m., at the San Juan County Courthouse Commission Chambers.
There will be an opportunity to sign in to provide oral comments; each night, a formal presentation by DOE officials will start at 7 p.m., followed by public comments at 7:15 p.m.
Written comments on the scope of the statement and requests to be included in future communications should be addressed to the ULP Program Manager, Ms. Laura Kilpatrick, Esq., Realty Officer, Asset Management Team, Office of Legacy Management, U.S. Department of Energy, 11025 Dover Street, Suite 1000, Westminster, CO 80021, 720-880-4338 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments must be submitted by Sept. 9.