When residents in the Tallahassee Creek drainage northeast of Cotopaxi learned about potential uranium mining in the area, they organized to oppose it. More than 1,000 property owners now make up the Tallahassee Area Community group, including more than 500 year-round and seasonal residents, said Cathe Meyrick, TAC president.
As previously reported in The Mountain Mail, Black Range Minerals Colorado plans to use a borehole mining process to extract uranium ore at the Hansen deposit, located within the South T Bar Ranch development along Tallahassee Creek. If the mining operation proceeds, 44 local property owners will become the first people in the world to live within 500 feet of active uranium mining, according to the TAC website.
The history of uranium mining in western Fremont County dates to the 1954 discovery of uranium ore deposits.
Following the discovery, relatively small mining operations created 16 open pit mines in the Tallahassee Creek area. All of the mines were eventually abandoned but not restored to original conditions because of the absence of environmental and mining regulations.
In the 1970s, Cyprus Mines Corp. acquired the Taylor Ranch mineral and water rights. In 1981, after drilling thousands of exploratory wells, Cyprus received permits to mine uranium ore at the Hansen deposit and operate a nearby uranium mill. The project never advanced beyond the permitting stage because uranium prices collapsed in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident.
With the ensuing cancellation of nuclear power plant construction projects, demand for uranium remained low for decades, as did uranium prices.
While uranium prices remained too low to support local mining operations, Fremont County commissioners knew about the presence of uranium ore and failed to designate the area as a Mineral Resource Area. In 1974, HB 74-1041 amended the Colorado Land Use Act, encouraging counties to make such designations in order to prevent incompatible land uses, thereby preserving the ability to develop mineral resources.
Lee Alter, chairman of the TAC Government Affairs Committee, said the 1976 Comprehensive Plan for Fremont County recommended that county commissioners establish a more definitive zoning plan. Alter also cited a 1980 Fremont County Land Use Plan that makes similar recommendations in order to “avoid incompatible land uses.” But the designation never happened, and the county approved the subdivision of ranch land into large rural residential parcels, benefiting local developers and contractors. Alter said the 1990 Fremont County Master Plan designated the preferred nonagricultural land use in the area as residential.
The current version of the Fremont County Master Plan, adopted in 2002 and available on the county website, states, “The primary nonagricultural land use (in the Mountain District of Fremont County) will be residential” (page 97). The master plan also states, “Long-term industrial operations will not be encouraged in the (Mountain) District. … Industrial development should be discouraged along … Fremont County Road 2 (Tallahasee Road)” (page 98), which provides the only access to the area.
Given these master plan statements and a general lack of disclosure by local developers and real estate agents, Meyrick said residents who bought land and built homes in the area had no idea their investments could be threatened by uranium mining.
However, increasing use of nuclear fuel to generate electricity in recent years, particularly in Asia, has investment firms like JPMorgan forecasting uranium prices of $80 a pound by 2014.
Projections like these prompted Black Range Minerals’ interest in mining the Hansen deposit, and the company acquired the privately held mineral rights to 13,500 acres along Tallahassee Creek. Alter said local residents began seeing lights and hearing machinery on Taylor Ranch in 2007 and learned that Black Range was conducting unpermitted drilling for test wells. He said Black Range eventually obtained a permit but not until after drilling 70 test wells. By then, Meyrick said, it was too late to obtain baseline water samples, making it impossible for residents to prove whether or not contaminants in their well water resulted from Black Range exploratory drilling.
The lack of oversight and accountability demonstrated by the unpermitted wells prompted local residents to organize, Meyrick said. Land-use issues Local residents cite several issues they believe should prevent Black Range from mining the Tallahassee-area uranium, beginning with incompatible land uses.
Alter said the market value of undeveloped ranchland in the early 1980s, including land with known uranium resources, was less than $200 per acre. Unimproved, subdivided ranch parcels sold since the mid ’80s for $1,000-4,000 per acre and more, Alter said. “Many of the residences and small hobby ranches that have been constructed over the past 25 years are valued at $500,000 or more.”
Alter also pointed to the recently constructed Benedictine Fellowship of St. Laurence Retreat. Permitted by the county in 2008, the retreat sits on the banks of Tallahassee Creek approximately 2 miles downstream from the Hansen deposit. Alter said the current assessed valuation from local residential parcels is approximately $40 million, resulting in annual property-tax revenue to the county of more than $250,000.
Given the degree of residential development in the Tallahassee Creek area and the value of that development to the local economy, Alter said he believes uranium mining “would clearly be incompatible with the current rural residential and recreational land use.” Alter also said, “The county tax base and the local economy would suffer” as a result of uranium mining. “In addition, the stigma associated with this ‘dirty’ industrial activity would significantly impact tourism and recreation – a major economic driver of this scenic county.”
But more importantly than the economics, Alter said, human-health and environmental risks associated with uranium mining make it incompatible with current residential land use. Citing Fremont County land-use authority – established by the state Legislature and confirmed by the 2009 Colorado Supreme Court decision – he called on county commissioners to “disallow uranium mining and ore processing in Tallahassee.”
Members of TAC also cite water as a source of concern stemming from proposed mining activities. Residents of the Tallahassee Creek area rely entirely upon aquifers for drinking and household water. Tests show the uranium content in some local wells has increased since Black Range began exploratory drilling, Meyrick said, and water from some wells exceeds drinking water standards by large margins.
Water availability in the area highlights another facet of the water issue. Black Range ended up purchasing water from Cañon City for exploratory drilling after the state engineer’s office denied the company’s substitute water supply plan (SWSP) in 2012. The ruling states, “Due primarily to the lack of replacement water to accomplish the applicant’s proposal, the plan will not … prevent injury to other water rights.”
Alter noted that the mining processes proposed by Black Range – underground borehole mining and ablation ore-concentration technologies – would require much more water than exploratory drilling.
One point of interest cited in the state’s denial of the SWSP involves North Spring Ditch water rights:
“The North Spring Ditch water rights were changed in 1980, rendering any irrigation use since that date unusable for calculating historic consumptive use for a subsequent change of use.” Court documents show that the 1980 change of use involved the transfer of irrigation water rights from Taylor Ranch to Cyprus Mine, which changed the use of that water to mining. Alter said Cyprus Mines sold those water rights back to the Taylors in 1993, and in 2012 the Taylors filed a case in Division 2 Water Court, to “confirm” their rights.
Alter said TAC members believe the Taylors filed the case to determine how much water they can sell to Black Range Minerals for proposed mining operations, prompting TAC to enter the case as an objector.
Given: (1) the significance of historical consumptive use in determining the amount of water Black Range could acquire and
(2) the SWSP ruling rendering “irrigation use since (1980) unusable for calculating historic consumptive use,” Alter said he believes Black Range has insufficient water for mining for underground borehole mining.
He cited estimates that the mining process could require as much as 50,000 gallons of water per hour.
The third area of concern voiced by TAC members encompasses the relatively new mining processes that Black Range proposes to use. Underground borehole mining uses a high-pressure water jet to break apart ore and bring it to the surface in a slurry.
Alter expressed concern about the elevated levels of oxygen present in pressurized water. The increased oxygen levels, he contends, will create chemical reactions that increase the likelihood of uranium and heavy metals contaminating well water and other natural resources. “This water and the recovered water in the slurry,” Alter said, “will contain oxidized, solubilized uranium, other radioactive constituents and heavy metals that otherwise would remain underground and insoluble.”
Alter said he also objects to the ablation process that Black Range proposes to use to concentrate mined ore. The process employs two jets of ore slurry fired directly at one another from opposing sides of the ablation machine. The impact when the slurry jets meet would dislodge uranium ore from the sandstone to which it is attached. Black Range contends that this process is a component of mining, but TAC members believe it is a uranium processing activity that requires additional permitting.
Members of TAC also question whether or not the remaining water and sandstone could be returned to the subsurface, as proposed by Black Range, without contaminating the aquifers that supply local wells.