Scrappy watchdogs gear up for a new mining boom with court victories
Demand for green metals and possible sanctions on Russian uranium could jumpstart the industry across the West
Here’s what’s great about electric vehicles: You don’t need to fill them up with dirty, stinky, volatile gasoline; they don’t spew any exhaust; and they contribute less to climate change, so long as they are charged on a grid not dominated by fossil fuels. Here’s what sucks about them: They are basically big, rolling batteries, and batteries need minerals such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. And, while all cars use copper, EVs use as much as ten times more than conventional ones.
As demand for EVs rises so will demand for these metals. High demand brings higher prices which spur more mining. That’s why a battery company just staked 90 new claims for lithium mines in Nevada, it’s why a cobalt mine just opened in Idaho and an antimony mine may follow soon, and it’s why old proposals for copper mines in Arizona are getting new life.
It’s not just “green metal” mining that’s likely to get a boost. American utilities buy most of the fuel for their nuclear reactors from foreign sources, a good chunk of which comes from mines owned by Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned uranium company. And Russia is currently the only supplier of the highly enriched fuel required by advanced reactors such as the one planned by Bill Gates-backed Terra Power for Kemmerer, Wyoming. The Biden Administration has held off on sanctioning Rosatom, but reportedly is considering adding uranium to its list of banned Russian energy imports, along with oil, coal, and natural gas. That would squeeze U.S. nuclear power producers, but along with other efforts to reduce reliance on foreign reactor fuel could help the beleaguered U.S. uranium mining industry and possibly revive dormant mines on the Colorado Plateau.
In other words, the West is on the cusp of a new hardrock mining boom, like those that have ravaged the landscape since the mid 19th century. And like those previous booms, this one will be overseen by the General Mining Law of 1872, an antiquated law meant to encourage mining, not regulate it, and which scholar Charles Wilkinson deemed the “Lord of Yesterday” most in need of reform.
But a handful of scrappy, understaffed, and underfunded mining watchdog groups are quietly working to avoid a repeat of the nightmares of the past. They immerse themselves in “regulatory wonk”—the complexities of mining laws and the technical aspects of waste storage and disposal, attend interminable hearings, submit meticulously detailed, technical comments and, when all of that fails, drag regulators and mining companies to court to push them to enforce oft-ignored laws. Earlier this month, the watchdogs scored a major victory when a Denver District Court judge—relying on a seldom-noticed and rarely enforced Colorado law—ruled in favor of the watchdogs and ordered the long idle Topaz uranium mine’s permit be rescinded and reclamation on the site to begin.
The Topaz is part of the Sunday Mine Complex, a cluster of five separate mines on the south side of the Big Gypsum Valley in western Colorado. The Sunday was first staked in the 1950s and originally operated by Matterhorn Mining company, one of dozens of small companies combing the Colorado Plateau for uranium. The Cold War was on and the federal government needed fissionable material for its growing stock of warheads, so it catalyzed a public lands uranium rush with a cornucopia of subsidies, including bonuses of up to $35,000 for initial uranium ore production and grubstake loans to finance mining operations. Most significantly, the government agreed to be the exclusive purchaser of ore and yellowcake, and guaranteed a price to be paid for it, thus eliminating financial risk from what otherwise would have been a high-risk, high-return proposition.
A frenzied boom erupted, bringing to the region both humanity and greed. The mid-century equivalent of the gold rush infused popular culture. A 1949 cover story in Popular Mechanics instructed readers how to build their own Geiger counters, and in 1953, a New Yorker feature article was devoted to an “alert-looking man named Calvin Black,” who was working as a foreman at a uranium mine at the time. “Uranium is all I’ve bothered with since I left high school five years ago,” Black—who, two decades later, would come to be known as the father of the Sagebrush Rebellion—told the reporter, “and I guess I’ve been lucky so far.” A board game called Uranium Rush included a “Geiger counter” that “lights and buzzes your way to fun and fortune.” Prospectors from across the demographic spectrum descended on the sparsely populated region, Geiger counters in hand, combing public lands in search for the next bonanza. In the mid-1950s, some 750 mines were active across the Colorado Plateau.
To facilitate the craze, the Atomic Energy Commission, county bulldozer crews, and prospectors cut roads up cliffs, across mesas and through washes. They didn’t even need to ask permission, thanks to a provision in an 1866 federal mining law, known as Revised Statute 2477, which gave anyone the right to build a road across Bureau of Land Management land to anywhere or, for that matter, to nowhere, without getting a permit or even informing the federal land agency. A vast expanse that in 1936 was declared the largest roadless area in America was soon covered with a web of roads.
David Lavender devotes the final chapter of the second and third editions (1956 and 1964) of his fabulous book, One Man’s West, to the uranium boom on the Colorado Plateau, focusing on his home region, Western Colorado. Of the growing web of roads, he writes:
Each day, it seems, another [road] appears. Once a spot of dust out in the heat-misty distance meant a whirlwind. Now, if you put binoculars on it, you will probably see a yellow bulldozer heaving out boulders, uprooting trees. The bawl of Diesel motors reverberates through the gorges. … Wheels—the jeep, the pickup, the trailer—have altered the setup of the range. … These are the annoyances about which the ranchers growl when discussing the boom. The real trouble goes deeper, however. They have been elbowed aside and left bewildered by the abrupt shift in values, the hurry, the speculative frenzy.
Just as the local culture was upended, so too was the high-desert landscape. Radioactive waste rock piled up outside of mine portals, mills and company towns sprouted along willow-lined river banks, and streams ran yellow-grey with toxic mill tailings. The Topaz was added to the rest of the Sunday Complex, which sits a few miles from the Dolores River, in 1970, and together the complex was one of the area’s larger producers.
In March 1979, one of the reactors at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown, thanks in part to a stuck valve, sparking fear in a populace among which an anti-nuclear-weapon movement was already growing. A few months later an even more damaging accident occurred on the Navajo Nation, when a uranium mill tailings dam owned by the United Nuclear Corporation was breached near Church Rock, New Mexico, sending more than 1,000 tons of tailings and 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid into the Puerco River, affecting livestock and contaminating the drinking-water wells of countless people downstream. The China Syndrome hit theaters that same year, and a rousing, star-studded No Nukes concert rocked Madison Square Garden, with Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, John Hall and Bonnie Raitt imploring the world to “take all your atomic poison power away.”
It was all too much for the uranium industry. In 1984 the Sunday Mine Complex shut down when the mill at Uravan, which processed the mine’s ore, was shuttered.
Several successive hardrock mining booms and busts had transpired across the West by then, leaving behind thousands of abandoned, unreclaimed mines and mills and waste dumps, many of which continued to pollute the land, air, and water. The General Mining Law of 1872 was devised to encourage mining by literally giving public land away to anyone who thought they might be able to pull a bit of ore out of it. A company could then extract millions of dollars worth of metals from the parcel without paying a cent of royalties then just walk away, leaving the mess to others to clean up.
Seeing what a disaster this was, Colorado lawmakers in 1976 passed the Mined Lands Reclamation Act, a set of rules governing the mining industry. Among other things, the suite of regulations requires companies to clean up mines after they’ve been idle for a maximum of ten years. It was, according to Jennifer Thurston, executive director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, a Colorado watchdog, “one of the most progressive aspects” of a progressive mining law. It would prevent mining companies from delaying reclamation of inactive mines indefinitely by saying they might one day actually start working the facility again.
Yet in the more than four decades since the law went into effect, it rarely has been enforced, and appears largely to have been ignored. When regulators did take note, they offered mining companies “temporary cessation” permits, allowing them to continue to idle the mines. While the on-the-ground regulators with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety have occasionally tried to deny the permits, the governor-appointed board that oversees them has tended to side with the mining companies.
Thurston is having none of it. She’s spent a good part of the last decade trying to get regulators to enforce the law, particularly as it applies to uranium mines. In 2018 Thurston’s organization, along with Earthworks and the Sheep Mountain Alliance, sued the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board over their decisions to issue temporary cessation permits to Western Uranium and Vanadium Corporation for their Van 4 mine. The Van 4 last produced in 1989, but regulators renewed the permit in 1999. In 2011, two years after the Van 4 should have been cleaned up, regulators woke up to the fact that dozens of mines had passed the ten-year limit. At that time they “reset the bar” to allow mining companies to get their reclamation plans together and to apply for temporary cessation permits, issuing one for the Van 4 in 2014. When they tried to issue another in 2017, Thurston challenged it in court.
In 2019 the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in Thurston’s favor, finding:
Therefore, the Board abused its discretion in approving the request for another period of temporary cessation in 2017. Because temporary cessation of the site has continued for more than ten years, the operation must be terminated and the operator must fully comply with reclamation requirements under the MLRA.
Fresh from that victory, Thurston and company turned their sights on the Sunday Mine Complex. When the mine closed in 1984 it was owned by a Union Carbide subsidiary before going through a series of other owners over the years. It was mostly dormant until a short burst of activity and production from 2007 to 2009, after which the entire complex again went dark, with the exception of some maintenance work. Western Uranium and Vanadium and its Colorado subsidiary, Piñon Ridge Mining, purchased the complex from Energy Fuels in 2014.
In 2019, state regulators warned Piñon Ridge that their work at the Sunday Complex did not constitute production, and they had reached their ten-year limit of non-production and were in danger of losing their permits. At the time, the domestic uranium industry was lobbying the Trump administration to limit uranium imports or implement other protectionist policies. The administration balked on the import limits, in part because it would hurt the nuclear power industry by increasing prices. Instead, it proposed infusing the industry with cash by purchasing large quantities of uranium for a national reserve and asked Congress for $150 million for that purpose—enough to encourage Piñon Ridge to restart work on some of its mines.
In 2020 staffers from Colorado’s DRMS notified the company that its five permits for the Sunday Mine Complex had exceeded the ten-year limit, and recommended that the Mined Land Reclamation Board revoke the permits. At the subsequent hearing, Piñon Ridge told the board it had stockpiled ore in three of the mines in the complex. But they had done nothing at the Topaz, for which they hadn’t even obtained a Bureau of Land Management permit. Regardless, the Board ignored the Division’s recommendations and issued temporary cessation permits to all five mines—including the Topaz. Thurston, Earthworks, Sheep Mountain Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Uranium Watch, and Living Rivers dragged the state board to court over the permit for the Topaz, since there was no question it had been dormant since 2009.
On March 1 of this year, Judge A. Bruce Jones overturned the Board’s decision to issue the Topaz permit, noting, “the Topaz Mine unquestionably had been in temporary cessation—meaning an absence of production—for at least 10 years prior to the Board’s orders.” That should lead to the revocation of the Topaz permit and start the clock ticking on reclamation of the site. Meanwhile, the state plans to hold hearings on possible revisions to the rules later this spring, and may close the loopholes.
While it’s a big win for environmentalists, the ruling won’t necessarily lead to a flurry of abandoned mine cleanup across the state. “Progress on getting inactive uranium mines cleaned up has been bitterly slow,” Thurston told me in an email, “and despite another legal win and new rules, I have little confidence that the state is going to turn it around and enforce the law with sincerity.”
But even if it’s not always enforced, the law itself is solid, and could be used as a model for federal mining law reform, which may actually happen in the not-too-distant future. Last month the Biden administration announced the formation of an Interagency group tasked with revamping the 1872 law “to promote responsible mining under strong social, environmental, and labor standards that avoids the historic injustice that too many mining operations have left behind.”
In other words, the Lords of Yesterday may be brought into line with the ethos of today. That, says Thurston, “could bring about a sea change in how mines do business on public lands.”
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