Small Colorado community wages war against uranium mine
February 21, 2008
NUNN ” Jean Hediger can stand at the edge of her organic wheat farm and look west to the Rockies, east toward this speck-in-the-road town and straight ahead into what she sees as her worst nightmare.
A Canadian company’s plans to establish a uranium mine just across the two-lane county road from Hediger’s farm has triggered a bitter tug-of-war with residents of this fast-growing region about 70 miles north of Denver who fear the risk of contaminated water and other health problems.
“How do you farm organically next to a uranium mine?” Hediger asks. “It’s pretty darned scary, isn’t it?”
Powertech Uranium Corp. Chief Executive Officer Richard Clement insists the firm’s closed-system mining process, in which a solution of oxygen and sodium bicarbonate is injected to recover the uranium, is safe.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about nuclear, about uranium, about radiation, about the effects of mining,” he said. “This is probably one of the most benign methods of mining that you’re ever going to encounter.”
Similar confrontations are occurring in the West, Nebraska and even Virginia as uranium companies try to meet a voracious global demand for new nuclear power plants and capitalize on rising prices ” hovering around $90 per pound to $100 per pound, from a low of about $7 just five years ago.
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Uranium flourished in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s for use in atomic weapons and then nuclear reactors. It was a heady time in the West as miners using Geiger counters staked out claims in areas with large uranium reserves such as Uravan, Colo.; Ticaboo, Utah; Grants, N.M. and the Navajo Nation’s lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The bottom fell out of the industry when the Cold War ended and uranium from weapons stockpiles flooded the marketplace. Its price plummeted from $40 a pound in the late 1970s to less than $10 a pound in the 1980s, according to the Colorado Geological Survey.
The Three Mile Island reactor accident in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Russia soured the public on the use of nuclear power.
Today, as more nations look to nuclear power as an alternative to coal and oil, the world’s uranium supplies are dwindling. In the past two years, thousands of mining claims have been staked on federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
“Everything started picking up like crazy in ’04 in those states,” said Roger Haskins, a Bureau of Land Management specialist in mining law.
Public awareness has risen again, too, as seen in the battle in northern Colorado.
Powertech, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, proposes a $20 million uranium mine west of Nunn. It’s working to obtain operating permits and hopes to open the mine in 2009. Powertech has purchased uranium mineral rights on 5,760 acres in Weld County for its operation.
Across most of the West, residents who buy property own the surface rights ” but most do not own the rights to minerals under their land, which can be sold or leased separately from public agencies and private firms and individuals.
Powertech plans to use a process where the oxygen-and-baking soda solution will capture the uranium and carry it to the surface. The system is designed to keep water from escaping into the air. “You know how a water softener works? Well, it’s exactly the same thing. It’s a big water softener,” Clement said.
The uranium will be taken to another facility to be transformed into yellowcake, a refined uranium oxide used in the production of uranium fuel.
The mining process, called in-situ recovery, will be located away from potable water supplies, Clement said. One such mine has operated without incident in South Texas since 1974.
Nunn, Colorado, is typical of rural America; just about everybody knows everybody else in this town of about 520 whose streets are carved from dirt. County roads ramble through wide open spaces of short-grass prairie that is home to burrowing owls, raptors and eagles.
A former stop on the Denver Pacific railroad, Nunn has survived over the years on agriculture. Its center is a grain elevator, a cafe, a post office and a handful of businesses. A giant water tower boasts the phrase, “Watch Nunn Grow.”
Five years ago, folks would gather at the grain elevator to chat about crop and cattle prices and catch up on the news. Since then, Greeley, Fort Collins and metropolitan Denver have reached into the fringes of the area, transforming it into a bedroom community.
Farmers sold huge ranches to create 85-acre ranchette lots for residents who wanted a rural lifestyle for raising their children, allowing them to participate in such time-honored clubs such as 4-H.
Among the immigrants are Jay and Robin Davis, who moved into Nunn in February 2006, settling on an 80-acre parcel. Davis researched oil, coal, natural gas and even diamonds to see whether any company could buy the mineral rights beneath his land.
Finding few of those resources, he and Robin moved in and established a haven for children where they could learn about nature and sustainable living. They put up a clubhouse and offered riding lessons for neighborhood kids.
They never once thought about uranium.
When they received a letter from Powertech informing them of the planned mine, the Davises thought it was a joke. “Our mineral rights are actually owned by Powertech,” Robin Davis said.
Hediger and her husband, Randy, bought their farm from Randy’s father in 1988 and are the largest landowners around Nunn. They raise organic wheat and millet with the help of their 19-year-old son, Bryce, and hope to one day pass the land along to him.
They didn’t give uranium a thought either until they received the Powertech notice. “My family is threatened, just like my neighbor,” Hediger said.
Hediger and the Davises have joined hundreds of residents from Fort Collins to Greeley, packing town hall gatherings and city and county meetings to voice their opposition.
A group called Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction has gathered 7,514 signatures on petitions seeking to stop the operation and posted small signs in the area that warn of the potential mine by using a familiar symbol for radiation.
The opponents and the company also have taken their battle to the Internet.
Powertech’s Web site is called NunnGrow.com, which takes visitors to the company’s home page where they can find details about the plan.
Opponents operate NunnGlow.com, which includes newspaper stories and editorials about the mine, updates on government action and risk studies on potential contamination.
Colorado lawmakers are considering legislation to place restrictions on uranium mining and require mining companies to prove they will restore groundwater aquifers to pre-mining quality before they receive permits for in-situ operations.
The bill also would require companies to show that technology exists to clean up any pollution that results from mining.
Powertech, which has properties in Wyoming and South Dakota, has begun exploratory drilling on the site across from Hediger’s farm to gather data for its application for an operating permit. It also will do air, weather, groundwater and engineering tests to submit to Colorado regulators.
Clement said the company will continue to communicate with residents in the area.