The Colorado Court of Appeals has ordered the long-dormant Van 4 uranium mine near the lower Dolores River to be closed down and cleaned up.
Environmental groups say the decision is precedent-setting and may trigger overdue mine reclamation on the Western Slope.
The Van 4 Mine last produced uranium ore in 1989 at a site on top of Bull Canyon, southeast of Bedrock.
Under Colorado mining laws, if a mine goes dormant, the company can apply for a “temporary cessation” status for up to 10 years, and if no mining takes place, then closure and final land reclamation is supposed to take place.
So in 2017 when the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board approved an additional “temporary cessation” status for Van 4 permit-holder Piñon Ridge Mining that would have exceeded the 10-year limit, the agency was sued by environmental groups, arguing it was a violation of state law.
Appeals Court rulingIn July, a three-judge panel for the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with plaintiffs Information Network for Responsible Mining, Sheep Mountain Alliance, and Earthworks.
The higher court reversed a lower court order that had affirmed the state mining board’s decision, which would have allowed the mine to continue to sit idle and postpone reclamation.
According to the appeals court ruling, since the Van 4 mine’s original temporary cessation order began no later than 1999, production had to resume by 2009 to prevent termination of the operation under state regulations.
“But the site never recommenced production,” wrote Colorado Appeals Court Judge Ted. C. Tow in the decision.
“Therefore, (Colorado Mined Land Reclamation) abused its discretion in approving the request for another period of temporary cessation in 2017. Because the temporary cessation of the site has continued for more than 10 years, the operation must be terminated and the operator must fully comply with reclamation requirements under the (Mined Land Reclamation Act).”
Precedent setting?Supporters of the ruling say it sets a precedent for potentially ending the so-called “zombie mine” era.
“Colorado does not allow inactive mines to remain unproductive yet unreclaimed for decades because they pose environmental threats and prevent otherwise beneficial uses of the land,” said plaintiff attorney Jeffrey C. Parsons of Western Mining Action Project, based in Lyons. “The court recognized the plain language of the statute and clear intent of the Legislature.”
Despite a 1977 state law that requires all mines to be fully reclaimed after mining ends, the law is not always enforced, according to a news release from the plaintiffs.
As a result, more than a dozen “uranium mines on the Western Slope were never cleaned up despite having ceased operations in the 1980s, allowing them to postpone cleanups indefinitely,” the release states.
“When they operate, mines provide important economic benefits,” said Jennifer Thurston, director of INFORM. “But if they are left unreclaimed once they’re done mining, at that point the only thing we get back from them is pollution.”
The Van 4 Mine was constructed in the late 1970s but had only a short run before going idle in the uranium bust that followed, court documents show.
Widespread problem“The problem of zombie mines is widespread in the West,” said Pete Dronkers, Earthworks’ Southwest representative. “This decision is encouraging. Colorado can now take a step forward in getting neglected mines cleaned up.”
During a 2017 hearing, a representative of Piñon Ridge Mining testified that minerals had not been extracted from Van 4 Mine since it had taken over the site because the depressed market price of uranium made production unprofitable.
He said they were exploring other extraction options at the site.
The state mining division argued that the mine’s filing of an environmental protection plan in 2012 was considered a part of active mining, but the court disagreed.
‘Intermittent status’According to case records, in 2011 or 2012, the state mining division realized that a large number of mines had not been in production for some time. They were languishing in “intermittent status” rather than in the more appropriate temporary cessation status that has a deadline for reclamation if there is no production.
The Division consequently informed the licensees that these mines would be “reset” to temporary cessation status, noting that approval was not guaranteed.
But using the reset approach as a “legal status” was in error, the appeals court said.
“Under the statute and rules, temporary cessation is a factual status that cannot be ‘reset’,” wrote Judge Tow in the decision.
In July, records show the permit for the mine was held by Piñon Ridge Mining LLC, a subsidiary of Western Uranium Corporation.
Colorado has an estimated 3,000 uranium mines, mostly on the Western Slope. There are 31 uranium mines currently permitted by the state.