NRC and Public Justice Say Uranium Mill Licensed Under Faulty Procedure

NRC and Public Justice Say Uranium Mill Licensed Under Faulty Procedure

Faced with a defiant Colorado state agency, Public Justice has told a Colorado district court that the state is wrong to claim that federal law does not apply in its licensing of a new uranium mill in southwestern Colorado.

As Public Justice pointed out in a brief filed Monday in Denver, the state has an explicit agreement with the federal government to comply with the minimum public participation procedures required under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA).

Public Justice represents the towns of Telluride and Ophir, Colo., in their lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for improperly licensing the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, which the towns say could contaminate the region’s air and water with radioactive materials.

Town of Telluride attorney Kevin Geiger says the state gave little or no consideration to the possible human health impacts, such as the toxic and radioactive contamination of the region’s air and water, and that the CDPHE completely ignored the requirements that it hold a hearing at which the public could have meaningful participation.

In a February 27 letter to the CDPHE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which administers the AEA, chided the state agency for not holding a proper public hearing — a legal process involving, among other things, testimony under oath and cross examination, not merely a meeting open to the public — before granting Energy Fuels Resources Corporation a license to build the Piñon Ridge mill in the Paradox Valley (pictured above).

The CDPHE responded sharply, saying that the NRC is both wrong and legally out-of-bounds in making such a determination. Executive Director Chris Urbina wrote in a March 16 letter to the NRC that the federal agency had no regulatory authority within the state — a position shared by Energy Fuels, which called complaints about the lack of public participation “laughable.”

“The CDPHE simply ignored federal law and its agreement [to comply with the AEA],” said Richard Webster, lead attorney for Public Justice. “Its stance now — that federal law doesn’t apply — is completely hypocritical. If CDPHE’s position is upheld, it could result in the termination of Colorado’s delegate authority to license uranium mills.”

Public Justice’s brief argues that the state previously intended to follow federal AEA rules, but then backtracked. It asks the Denver district court to rescind the issued license for Energy Fuels and give the CDPHE instructions to follow lawful procedure.

“The federal law requirements are there for a reason,” said Matt Wessler, co-counsel on the case. “Processing radioactive uranium is an incredibly dangerous activity, and everyone should want to make sure that this process is as safe as possible. For Colorado to just disregard its obligations makes clear that it does not value the safety and health of its citizens and environment as its highest priority. Instead, it’s decided to side with mining companies, who only care about the bottom line.”

Until NRC’s rebuke, Energy Fuels was steadily moving towards construction of the $150 million mill. Piñon Ridge would be the first uranium mill constructed in the U.S. in the last quarter century.

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