By Dan MacArthur.
North Forty News. November 2010.
A uranium company insists development of its proposed mine in Weld County will continue despite recent imposition of tougher state rules and the possible pullout of its largest shareholder.
Powertech president and chief executive officer Richard Clement recanted his earlier statement that the new rules would be "fatal" to in-situ leach uranium mining operations such as its proposed Centennial Project between Wellington and Nunn.
"We can live with them," Clement said in a recent telephone interview. "They are not fatal to the project."
Meanwhile, the Belgium-based Synatom on Sept. 15 announced that it was undertaking a "strategic review" that could result in the sale of its investment in Powertech. A subsidiary of a leading European energy company, Synatom owns 19.6 percent of Powertech shares.
But Clement maintained that permitting work on the proposed Centennial mine is proceeding toward an anticipated application for a mining permit in 2011.
Local mine opponent Jim Woodward disputed such optimistic claims. Woodward, who lives two miles from the proposed project, maintains an independent web site monitoring Powertech and activities related to the uranium industry (see powertechexposed.com).
"It looks to us like the project has ground to a halt with the decision by Synatom," said Woodward.
Clement said most of the pre-application work is completed and data is being collated. "We have the majority of information needed," he said.
A required pump test remains to be completed, Clement said. The test is necessary to determine whether Powertech's recently proposed "aquifer enhancement" is viable. The plan calls for injecting fresh water into the aquifer beneath the mine site to facilitate extraction of the uranium ore. Clement blamed the delay on the Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve the test.
In the meantime, Clement said, Powertech has shifted its energies to another mine further advanced in the permitting process. The Dewey Burdock Project encompasses more than 18,000 acres on the southwest flank of the Black Hills uplift.
The British Columbia-based Powertech controls seven projects or prospects encompassing more than 89,000 acres in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. The Centennial Project encompassing 7,230 acres is the only one in Colorado.
Based on an independent primary economic assessment to determine the project's viability, Clement in an Aug. 20 press release asserted that "the project is one of the best undeveloped uranium deposits in the (United States)."
"Centennial is the centerpiece of a new (in-situ recovery) uranium district and has all the earmarks of becoming a new large production center around which many other uranium deposits will be developed," he continued.
Clement said that the permit application for the Centennial Project was delayed for two years pending development of the new mining regulations by the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board.
That rule-setting process was set into motion with the Colorado legislature's 2008 passage of three bills setting stricter mining standards. Resulting rules that took effect Sept. 30 apply to hard rock, metal and designated mining operations – especially in-situ leach mines.
In ISL mining, underground water is pumped from ore-bearing formations, then infused with a baking soda-like solution and injected back into the formations to dissolve the ore. The slurry that is created is then pumped to the surface. There it is processed to extract the uranium from the water, which is reused.
Perhaps most notable among the new rules – and most strongly opposed by Powertech – were those related to groundwater quality. ISL operations now are required to return groundwater to its original quality or to standards set by the state. They must also provide detailed baseline hydrology information and environmental protection plans.
In an Aug. 6 response to the board, the company challenged the authority of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to impose such requirements.
Further, Clement and Powertech attorney John Fognani dismissed as impractical or impossible the demand that existing water-quality conditions be determined prior to the start of prospecting. Such data, they stated, could be gathered only after prospecting started.
"This results in an obvious 'Catch 22' which would be fatal to any serious potential in-situ recovery process," they wrote.
Applicants for in-situ uranium mine permits must also substantiate that the proposed mining technology has been used at five other locations without harming groundwater quality. Permits will not be issued to applicants in violation at another operation.
The rules additionally aim at greater transparency by making prospecting notices largely public information and allowing public comment on them.