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