Balancing needs with environmental concerns

Nearly every product for sale in America is made from something that is mined…

By Norma Engelberg
Posted 7/24/08

Nearly every product for sale in America is made from something that is mined - from the iron in doorknobs to the baking soda in cakes. When it comes …

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Balancing needs with environmental concerns

Nearly every product for sale in America is made from something that is mined…

Posted

Nearly every product for sale in America is made from something that is mined - from the iron in doorknobs to the baking soda in cakes.

When it comes to nonfuel mineral production, in 2006 Colorado tied with Pennsylvania with production valued at $1.67 billion. Neighboring states Arizona and Nevada came in first and second with $6.7 billion and $5.2 billion respectively. Figures from a 2003 National Mining Association report shows that mining employed 8,640 people who earned an average annual wage of $55,941 and produced about $1.3 billion. There is an upside with adding billions to the economy but there also is a downside when it comes to costs to local communities and counties. Take the example of San Miguel and Montrose counties.

San Miguel has four producing uranium mines, all in the western part of the county almost at the Utah border. Colorado has been producing uranium since 1898 when 10 tons of ore from the Colorado Plateau was shipped to Marie and Pierre Curie for their research into radioactivity, research that won them the Nobel Peace Prize.

San Miguel also has a thriving oil industry. The mine and well owners pay taxes on the assessed value of the properties based on production and personal property taxes.

"The roads are our biggest concern," said San Miguel County administrator Lynn Black. "The roads in that part of the county are mostly gravel and weren't designed for the heavy traffic they're getting. We've been able to upgrade them with help from the Department of Local Affairs and the mine and oil field owners have been very cooperative but this issue still affects our transportation budget."

Black's other concern is environmental.

"We're trying to limit the impact of oil drilling on the native Gunnison sage grouse," she said. "Most of the oil and gas is on Bureau of Land Management land and they've been aggressive in protecting grouse habitat."

One note though is that the mines and oil fields are not near any San Miguel County residential areas. Karen Henderson, assistant planner in the San Miguel County planning office said most of the mine employees live in Dove Creek in Dolores County or Nucla and Naturita in Montrose County. Some also live in Utah.

"We look at the environmental impact and the mines must develop mitigation and reclamation plans," she said. "They also have plans to mitigate traffic impact on county roads and bridges."

Henderson said there has been a big increase in the number of mineral exploration permits requested.

"This happens every time the price of uranium goes up," she said. "But so far nothing ever comes of it. There are large start-up costs involved and I'm not sure how high the price of uranium has to get before we'll see some new mines."

"The mine permitting process is long and drawn out," Black said. "Another part of the problem is that there is no uranium processing plant close by. I've heard that one mine might be stockpiling ore until a plant is available."

That processing plant might be coming to Montrose County's Paradox Valley.

"The permits haven't been pulled but already the protest groups are starting up," said Montrose County Commissioner Allan Belt, whose district covers the area of the county where older, closed mines are located, and the potential oil fields. "We don't join the folk at either pole on this. We don't oppose mining at any cost or accept it at no cost."

Montrose County has 38 closed uranium mines that people are showing interest in reopening.

"I spent 20 years at the [Bureau of Land Management] office and I can guarantee I'll see the same faces in the county offices as I did back then at the BLM office." Belt said, adding that the same people opposed to any kind of development on BLM land also are usually opposed to mining.

He said the county has rules to protect the environment and that before anything can happen, numerous environmental studies have to be conducted and approved.

As for transportation impacts, Montrose County has received mineral impact funds totaling about $20,000 because of the roads used by Montrose residents who work in San Miguel County.

"That's another concern," Belt said. "We have fees and agreements on the roads. They won't be maintained only with Montrose County dollars. We are affected by a lot of San Miguel mining but there will be no unnecessary road building on our tax dollars."

San Miguel and Montrose aren't the only counties dealing with a uranium exploration boom. The number of uranium mining claims has doubled in 12 Western states since 2003 and with the increase in the number of claims there is a corresponding increase in the number of activist organizations opposed to uranium mining, some of them in nearby Fremont and Park counties. One site at the southwest corner of Teller County where it meets the other two counties also is thought to have uranium deposits.

At issue is a new-to-Colorado, 40-year-old technology called in-situ mining. The process involves injecting oxygen and sodium bicarbonate rich water into the uranium-bearing sandstone. The water dissolves the uranium and is pumped back to the surface where the uranium is recovered.

Residents are concerned about the possible contamination of ground water and a decline in property values.

Another kind of mining using water takes place in the northwestern part of the state where nahcolite is mined. Nahcolite is named after its chemistry, NaHCO3. Another name for nahcolite is sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. Trona is another form of sodium carbonate that is mined in Wyoming and California.

The mineral is found in pockets intermixed with oil shale and is mined by injecting hot water into the deposits, which can be as deep as 2,000 feet below the surface. The water dissolves the nahcolite and is then pumped to the surface where it dries as clear, nearly pure sodium bicarbonate crystals. The nahcolite deposits in Rio Blanco and Garfield counties are some of the largest in the world.

According to a document from American Soda, its solution-mining process is designed to minimize impacts on ground water. The mines are several hundred feet under the aquifer and, so far, tests show no change in the water quality.

Another consideration for nahcolite mining is possible impacts on the oil shale it's associated with. A meeting of the Rio Blanco County Commissioners in February 2006 demonstrates this issue. At that meeting Kent Walter of the White River BLM office said the thickest, richest nahcolite deposits reside in the same locations as the thickest, richest oil shale deposits.

ExxonMobile says developing the oil shale field will destroy the nahcolite and doesn't want to account for it in the company's oil recovery process. Shell Oil says the process will leave the nahcolite intact and it can be recovered later. The report states that if Shell is correct, ExxonMobile might be required to recover the nahcolite.

Other minerals mined in Colorado include, of course, gold and silver along with molybdenum, coal, limestone, marble, gypsum, shale and granite. There has even been a diamond mine. The Kelsey River Diamond Mine at the Colorado Wyoming border closed in 2000 because of a change in ownership.

Balancing the needs of industry and consumers and the environment is an issue that isn't going to go away soon. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States imports about 40 percent of 24 critical metals, which includes about 40 percent of its copper and 100 percent of its aluminum.

For a map of active, permitted and historical mines in Colorado,click here

719-687-3006 | nengelberg@ccnewspapers.com.

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