Uranium mill for the River of Sorrows?

Uranium mill for the River of Sorrows?

The first new U.S. uranium mill in three decades could be coming to Colorado and the rugged valley of the Dolores River in the southwestern corner of the state. The river — originally named Río de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, or River of Our Lady of Sorrows, by Spanish priests in 1776 — and the surrounding Paradox Valley is a stunning landscape of mesas and vistas to explore (and one of my favorite drives in the country). Its ecological importance and popularity with boaters and hikers has led state environmentalists to push for national wilderness designation for parts of the valley.

A February 11 article in The Telluride Watch covers some local environmentalists’ concerns about the plans of the milling company, Energy Fuels Resources Corp., which has applied for a permit, and the potential impacts to the Dolores River and its flows should the project receive approval.

Mills process uranium once it is removed from the ground in order to make it usable for nuclear power plants, but the operation involves using lots of water and leaving behind tailings that can contaminate air and water. Western towns, including Cañon City, Colorado and Moab, Utah, are both still cleaning up from older mills and dealing with the toxic results; a 2006 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory fact sheet details the cleanups and regulations surrounding mill tailings.

I wrote a feature article (“CWCB’s Instream Flow Program matures”) about the Dolores and the ongoing process to protect streamflows within the river for biological, recreational and agricultural needs in the Fall 2009 issue of Headwaters Magazine, put out by the nonprofit Colorado Foundation for Water Education. The story covers the progress of the state board in charge of protecting these instream flows in rivers across the state, using the Dolores as a key example of Colorado’s evolution in considering river health.

Federal regulators will review the uranium mill application, but a decision is likely a ways off and highly dependent on other factors, namely the development of the domestic nuclear power industry. And regardless of regulators’ decision, it will undoubtedly face legal challenges.

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