State Rep. Don Coram is taking steps to clean up and shut down four uranium mines he owns, making him among the first uranium mine operators in Colorado to call it quits for now and restore the land to its pre-mined condition.
The action comes after several years of legal pressure by activists on the state and federal government to shut down the old uranium mines that dot the landscape of San Miguel and Montrose counties.
A 2008 state law required all uranium mines to meet a higher level of regulatory scrutiny. State mining regulators are now demanding that all mine operators either submit a detailed environmental protection plan or shut down their mines and reclaim the land.
"Economically, it seemed to be more feasible to me to do a reclamation plan. It was strictly a matter of economics," said Coram, a Montrose Republican whose district includes Montezuma County.
Coram's company, Gold Eagle Mining Inc., bought the mines in 1998. Three are close to the Dolores River at Slick Rock. The fourth overlooks the Paradox Valley in Montrose County. They have been out of operation almost constantly since the early 1980s.
The state has given him until May 2014 to finish reclamation of the sites.
But even as they enter the cleanup stage, the mines remain as controversial as ever.
A mining watchdog group called Information Network for Responsible Mining, or INFORM, has been hounding Coram and other mine operators, and the group submitted a harsh objection to Coram's request earlier this year for an extension of his permit to leave the mines idle.
"We will not mince words in criticizing the condition of the Slick Rock mines: They are dangerous to public health, to the Dolores River, to wildlife and to the ecosystem they actively pollute. These mines represent egregious examples of neglect and mismanagement and have been allowed, for many years, to erode their toxic and radioactive contaminants directly into the Dolores," INFORM's objection stated.
Coram sharply disputes the charges.
"The state certainly does not agree with that. I would take educated people's opinions on that," Coram said.
Tony Waldron of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety said Coram's mines are not polluting the Dolores River.
"We don't have any evidence that that's going on. (The mines) have been sitting there for a number of years," Waldron said,
Radiometric readings near the mines show nothing above the natural background levels of radiation.
However, storm water does run off some of the mining waste piles, Waldron said. As part of the reclamation work, Gold Eagle will have to flatten the piles to reduce the risk of tainted water spilling off the site.
Other reclamation work includes closing portals, replanting vegetation and removing old buildings.
INFORM's Jennifer Thurston will watch the work carefully.
"We're talking about uranium here," Thurston said. "It's not a business to take lightly. The storm water controls have to be serious. There just are not that many in place at any of the Gold Eagle mines."
Coram said his decision to reclaim the mines had nothing to do with pressure from INFORM. Still, activists say it's a milestone on a legal campaign they have been waging for years on a number of fronts.
In federal court, they got a judge to overturn the Department of Energy's program to lease land for uranium mining until a better environmental review is complete.
The judge issued an injunction against any mining activity on DOE leases, and there's some question about whether Coram's cleanup work would break the injunction. State regulators however, say cleanup work should be allowed under the injunction.
In the Legislature, the 2008 law is forcing mine owners to develop better environmental plans.
And at the state Mined Land Reclamation Board, INFORM is pushing against any more temporary permit extensions for idled mines. Very little uranium has been mined in Colorado since the early 1980s, but companies have not had to close and clean up their mines because they still have permits that treat the mines as temporarily closed.
The two biggest mine owners, Cotter Corp. and Energy Fuels, won approval in April for another extension of their temporary cessation permits.
Colorado has 33 permitted uranium mines, run by eight to 10 companies, Waldron said.
Coram bought his mines in 1998 because he was interested in the deposits of vanadium - an element used to strengthen steel -that are found alongside uranium. But the economics of uranium mining have remained in a prolonged bust cycle. Companies like Energy Fuels are betting that world demand for nuclear power will increase, and Coram is bullish, too.
"Production is well below consumption. There has to be a turnaround point not too far out," Coram said.
Even after Gold Eagle closes the mines, it will retain the right to apply for a new permit and start mining again if the market comes back.