Appeasement, uranium, and South Park water

Letter from Phil Doe

Water – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine


As valuable as I find John Orr’s monthly water updates, I find his discussion of HB 08-1161 far too sanguine. The legislation requires uranium miners to clean up ground water that might become polluted from their operations. Orr states that the citizens of Park County “should feel a little more at ease with the project” since as one of the bill’s sponsors said, “If companies … are true to their word that they can do this without affecting groundwater, they should have no difficulty with this bill.”

I call this approach to environmental protection the Neville Chamberlain gambit. It consists of a piece of paper about as worthless as a camp butterfly. That’s the way Hitler treated the nonaggression pact he signed with British prime minister Chamberlain, and it’s the way unscrupulous energy companies, of which there may be several, can treat HB 08-1161. Oops is very much a working part of their lexicon.

But what can we make of this uranium mining proposal in Park County? According to my good friend Richard Hamilton who lives in Fairplay and has been birddogging this issue for some time, there could be as much as $4 to $5 billion in ore deposits within the county. The problem is that the in-situ mining regimen to be employed carries a real danger of freeing up unrecovered uranium and other heavy metals and making them available for groundwater transport. Now, here’s the rub. If this were to occur, it’s not just Park County’s problem, it becomes a major problem for the people of the Denver area. Park County, you see, is a major headwaters source for the Platte River, which in turn is a major source of drinking water for Denver and environs. A great hush fell over the assembled committee at the state legislature when Denver Water’s chief treatment engineer, Jim Miller, told them that if uranium were to get into the city’s water supply Denver Water has no means of treating for it at the present. Some will not be surprised to learn that neither Denver daily reported Mr. Miller’s warnings.

What is the solution? Recently, Governor Ritter told a town hall meeting in Fairplay that he would watch the development carefully. He made this pledge after he received a petition from almost 700 people in Park County asking him to write Secretary of Interior Kempthorne to postpone any leasing for uranium extraction until a full environmental evaluation had been completed. Ritter has this authority, which he seems reluctant to invoke, because it was granted to governors under section 601 of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The section 601 requirements are very specific, but they fit the situation in Park County to a tee. The governor of the affected state can demand a moratorium on mineral leasing for uranium in cases where the surface land is privately owned, but the mineral rights are federally owned. This is exactly the situation in Park County, and helps to underscore why so many people are upset with the prospect that their backyards might become mining sites. The moratorium can stand until studies determine that there will be no adverse impacts from uranium mining.

Ritter’s reluctance to invoke his powers in the name of the people is disturbing and starting to resemble a habit, unfortunately. (Admission, I voted for Ritter and like him personally.) Maybe, the severance taxes from the billions in uranium extraction are just too glittering. After all, the search for ways to fund education without coming to the people has become the holy grail for state politicians. Maybe the Washington governing elites’ love affair with nuclear is just too inexorable despite the warnings of renowned scientists like Amory Lovins that nuclear is a dangerous chimera, or capitalists like Warren Buffett, the latest “world’s-richest-man,” who after dumping a reported $100 million in sounding nuclear’s potential, pulled the plug.

And lest anyone think we’ve never been duped before, I ask that you recall the Summitville Mine disaster. The Romer administration gave the Canadian mining company license to recover gold through cyanide heap leaching. Unbelievably, Romer, waving the jobs flag, accepted mine-site equipment in lieu of a cash bond. The rest is history, the leach ponds leaked, destroying miles of a mountain stream. The mining company went back to Canada, and the taxpayers paid for the cleanup — well over $1 billion, as I recall. Senator Ken Salazar, then the state’s Attorney General, announced with considerable fanfare that he would personally lead negotiations and the cost recovery effort against the Canadians. Perhaps not his finest hour, but, according to some, not his worst either.

And just the other day, after 18 years, a federal judge ordered Dow Chemical and Boeing to pay almost $1 billion in compensation at the long-closed Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant. This judgment is to go to some 12,000 home owners for property damages and health risks from plutonium contamination. In one of those odd twists one should always expect when the public interest battles corporate socialism, the judge stayed the compensation until after the companies exhaust their appeals — another 18 years, perhaps? Both companies claim they are not liable because they were merely contractors for the Department of Energy. Guess who owns the Department of Energy?

But these examples are mere child’s play when compared to what the cleanup costs would be if our water supply were to become contaminated with uranium from mining in Park County. Over 268 thousand housing units are found in Denver, without regard to the even more populous suburbs girdling the city.

Phil Doe