A federal judge has lifted a seven-year ban on uranium leases in Southwest Colorado after a U.S. mining program was shown to have no harmful effect on four endangered fish species in the Colorado River.
The Department of Energy program to mine uranium in the Paradox Valley area was put on hold in 2011, when a court injunction required an additional environmental review on potential impacts to the fish.
In March, Colorado U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez ruled DOE complied with the court’s directive, and he approved DOE’s motion to lift the injunction, which barred mining leases at 31 uranium mines on 25,000 acres in the Uravan Mineral Belt.
The main question was whether water discharged from mining activities might affect the endangered humpback and bonytail chubs, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife concluded in its review there was no likelihood that mining would jeopardize or threaten the species’ habitat.
The 2011 injunction was granted after environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2008 claiming the DOE’s water-use analysis that it submitted to Fish and Wildlife in 2008 did not include the water demands of the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill.
But since then, plans for the mill to be built west of Naturita stalled, and DOE decided the mill’s water use should be in the analysis.
In April 2018, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment revoked the mill’s radioactive materials permit after a District Court judge concluded that the proposed mill project failed to demonstrate adequate environmental protections.
To comply with the court order, DOE did include Piñon Ridge’s potential water use in a revised biological report to Fish and Wildlife, according to the order lifting the injunction.
But in its response to the recent supplemental biological analysis, the wildlife agency stated that Piñon Ridge was no longer a “reasonably foreseeable action that must be considered” and announced that its 2008 biological opinion was still accurate in “predicting no jeopardy to the Colorado River endangered fishes’ habitat.”
In court briefings this year, DOE cited company reports for the mill that stated “a surge in uranium exploration, mining, and permitting is anticipated if the mill is constructed.”
DOE went on to say that “this statement may have been appropriate at that time; however, since then, various world events happened (e.g., Fukushima in 2011) that contributed to continued low uranium ore prices — lower than economically feasible for new mining or a surge in mining.”
The plaintiffs who argued against the motion to dismiss the injunction were Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Center for Biologic Diversity and the Sheep Mountain Alliance.
They argued that DOE cannot move to dissolve the injunction without first lodging a new or supplemental administrative record.
Martinez rejected the claim and ruled that “DOE committed no error.”
He said that assembling an administrative record would take more time and likely more briefing.
“The Court finds that it would not be in the interest of justice to delay resolution of the matter any further,” Martinez wrote. “This case is almost eleven years old, and the Court’s injunction has been in place for more than seven years.
“For all these reasons, the Court holds under the unusual circumstances presented here that DOE need not have assembled and disclosed a full administrative record before seeking review of its limited, Court-ordered re-consultation with FWS.”
The low price of uranium at $25 per pound has restricted investment and mining, which typically needs a $60 or more per pound for profitability.
Travis Stills, an attorney representing the environmental groups, called the ruling “disappointing,” and added reclamation efforts need to step up on long-abandoned mines.
“There has been no serious effort to mine, and these mines need to be cleaned up and come into compliance with the Mined Land Reclamation Board,” he said.