I knew nothing substantial about the uranium mine being proposed near Fort Collins, so I went to a panel discussion held by the Fort Collins public library to see what it’s about. I’ll summarize what stood out for me in the three-hour discussion.
The setup was like a scene from a movie: white-faced, white-haired men in suits on one side of the panel, and a disparate array of activists that oppose the mine on the other. All my stereotypes were disconcertingly reinforced by the scene, and nothing happened to cast any doubt on them. It probably would have degraded quickly into hair-pulling and eye-poking, but the library moderators were keen to keep tempers at bay, and they did an admirable job.
Mining permits are being sought by Powertech Uranium Corporation to mine uranium from (approximately) the yellow area on this map:
The opposition (featuring Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction) came largely armed to display the horrors of open pit mines, which Powertech had previously indicated interest in. Powertech threw them a curve ball by announcing that they would not conduct any open pit mining. That should be clear on the library tape. Instead they are focusing on a method called In-Situ Recovery (ISR) that essentially involves drilling boreholes and pumping water through the ore and back out of the ground. Whereas open pit mines have a history that includes some disasters, it seems that that ISR mining has a shorter, more subtle past and will be easier to defend.
The concerns and questions from the public were what I expected – worries about health effects, groundwater contamination, environmental and economic impacts. More interesting and new to me was what I perceived to be Powertech’s strategy. These are not direct quotes, but my perception of their position.
- “All we want is to follow the law.” They will talk at length about how difficult it is to follow the law. There are many regulations and requirements for public comment.
- My concerns: they provide all the data that will be analyzed to assess their compliance with regulations. They may be eager to conduct the required public forums, but there is no legal consequence for negative public input.
- One exception: there seemed to be agreement that if the county (or state or fed) denies their permit, they’re done.
- “Science is on our side.” They want to keep the arguments based on science and data.
- My concerns: they own the data, and in the name of openness will drown any arguments against them in it. It’s not likely that any opposition will have the funding to conduct studies or collect data, especially about this specific site.
- “We’ll leave the site just as we found it.” Regulations require that the land is restored to its prior use, and there are state-held bonds to ensure this.
- My concerns: they are funding voluminous studies to argue that the land currently has no use at all. Also, it doesn’t seem like they have any responsibility to restore surrounding lands and aquifers to prior use. Finally, “prior use” appears to mean something different than “prior condition” – as long as the land is still usable in the prior manner, is contamination allowable?
- My concerns: aren’t Greely and other communities in the area experiencing water shortages already? How can a water-based mining process not compete with existing needs, and how can such large quantities of waste water be isolated from the surrounding aquifer?
One more fact stuck with me: this company has no history of In-Situ Recovery mining. This would be their first try, right next to town.