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Salazar raises uranium concerns Print

Free Press
March 12, 2008

WASHINGTON, DC - Today the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the legacy of our Nation’s abandoned mines and on the impacts of domestic uranium mining. Congress has held several hearings on hardrock mining and mining law reform this session. As a former water and mining law attorney and the former director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, United States Senator Ken Salazar brings a deep and knowledgeable perspective to mining issues. Additionally, Colorado has a huge stake in mining reform as it leads the Nation in the surge of mining claims, with the number of claims rising by 432 percent in the last five years as it produces significant quantities of gold, silver, gypsum and molybdenum, whose prices have recently climbed.

Colorado also has approximately 23,000 inactive or abandoned mines. These mines already do or have the potential to pollute waterways, mar mountainsides and damage our natural heritage. In 2006, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sent Senator Salazar’s “Good Samaritan” legislation to the Senate floor.

That legislation encourages community groups, companies, and individuals to clean-up abandoned mines under the provisions of a permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which exempts them from liabilities outside the strict obligation to complete a carefully considered clean-up plan. State approval and full public participation is required in every instance. Senator Salazar will reintroduce the Good Samaritan legislation and will continue to push for its passage as comprehensive mining reform is deliberated.

Senator Salazar also will be an original cosponsor of legislation introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bingaman to restore funding to state and tribal hardrock abandoned mine land cleanup programs through the Office of Surface Mining’s Coal Abandoned Mine Land Program. That funding was recently rescinded by the Bush Administration. Current levels of federal funding for abandoned mine cleanup activities barely scratches the surface of this vast problem across the Western states. Eliminating one of the few federal funding streams for these activities is counter-productive, and this legislation will prevent this cancellation of cleanup revenue.

Conscious of the concern of the citizens of Northern Colorado about the possible environmental and economic impacts of the Centennial Project uranium mine proposal, at today’s hearing Senator Salazar also welcomed the opportunity to explore the issues surrounding in situ leach uranium mining.

Below is Senator Salazar’s statement to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee:

“Thank you Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Domenici for holding today’s important hearing on two critical issues: the legacy of abandoned mine lands and uranium mining. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the issues they believe Congress should consider as we grapple with hardrock mining reform.

“We have had several hearings on hardrock mining in this Congress, and members of this committee have heard me speak before to an issue related to mining law reform that has been a top priority for me since I joined the Senate: Good Samaritan cleanups of abandoned hard-rock mining sites. I am grateful that today’s hearing will shine a direct spotlight on the need to enable more cleanups of abandoned mine lands, including Good Sam cleanups.

“The Western United States is home to many abandoned mines and mining residues; my state of Colorado has over 23,000 abandoned mine sites. At these sites there are typically significant physical hazards to humans and wildlife. Many of these sites continue to pollute the water, land, and air."

"According to the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining, and Safety over 1,300 miles of stream in Colorado are affected by heavy metal contamination. Erosion and sedimentation, acid rock drainage, heavy metals leaching into streams, sulfide waste piles, contaminated soils, and improperly disposed mining processing chemicals are some of the numerous legacies of abandoned mine sites.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are over half a million abandoned mines nationwide, most of which are former hard rock mines located in the western States. In many cases, no one alive is legally responsible for cleaning these sites. In other cases, those who are legally responsible lack the money or other resources necessary to clean them up, and the pollution continues unabated.

“Today, relative to the scope of the problem, there is a paucity of federal revenue devoted to cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines. In truly exceptional circumstances, abandoned mines have been reclaimed under EPA’s Superfund program; in its history 88 hardrock mines have been listed on the National Priority List. A limited funding stream is available for cleanups of hardrock mines through the Coal Abandoned Mine Land Program. According to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), over the history of this thrity-or-so year old program only 1,279 hardrock sites have been reclaimed. I am pleased to be an original cosponsor of a bill with Chairman Bingaman to undo a recent ruling by the Bush Administration that forbids the use of these funds for hardrock mine cleanups.

“I believe that, going forward, Good Samaritan cleanups have to be a part of our national mine reclamation “toolbox.”

"Providing a framework that encourages Good Samaritan cleanups is essential to expanding reclamation activities. More rivers and streams will return to habitable condition with Good Sam legislation in place than without it. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure we move forward in this Congress on encouraging the clean up of abandoned mine sites."

“The second topic of today’s hearing is uranium mining, another issue that is critically important in my home state of Colorado. As we all know, today there is a “gold-rush” mentality when it comes to uranium claims. From a lowpoint of $7 per pound in 2000, the market price of uranium ballooned nearly 2000 percent between 2000 and 2007. This rapid price increase and the possibility of expanded use of nuclear power has led to an enormous increase in the number of uranium mining claims. Perhaps the highest profile example of this surge in claims are the hundreds of new claims within a few miles of the rim of the Grand Canyon.

"Colorado is also seeing a rush of new claims in several areas of the state."

“The price volatility of this commodity alone is disconcerting, but of course uranium mining has a troubled environmental and public health legacy. Traditional open-pit uranium mining has long been associated with adverse health impacts for miners and tailings piles that plague nearby communities. In northern Colorado, there is a proposal to perform in situ leaching uranium mining."

"The citizens who live near the proposed site have expressed their grave concerns to me about the potential negative economic and environmental impacts that this project may have on their communities. The proposed project would be located within 30 miles of a population of approximately 300,000 people. Many are worried that the in situ leaching process employed at the mines will result in contamination of their groundwater."

“Today I would like the witnesses on our second panel to address the fundamental question of the cumulative global experience with in situ leach uranium mining. In my correspondence with EPA on the subject thus far, I have not been assured that we understand the risks, especially to our groundwater, and that we have the regulatory processes and requirements in place to assess the impacts of “excursions” of uranium solution in these operations. I am seeking clarification from each of the regulatory agencies involved in licensing in situ leach mining operations that they share a coherent vision of the risks and issues of public concern.”

For information, call Cody Wertz – 303-350-0032 or Stephanie Valencia – 202-228-3630.

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