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For Immediate Release, July 31, 2008


Travis Stills, Managing Attorney, Energy Minerals Law Center, (970) 375-9231
Brian Farnsworth, INFORM, (303) 881-8645,
Amy Atwood, Center for Biological Diversity, (541) 914-8372,
Megan Mueller, Center for Native Ecosystems, (303) 546-0214

42-Square-Mile Federal Uranium Program Challenged:
Threatens Contamination of Public Land, Wildlife Habitat,
Communities, and Precious Western Water

DURANGO, Colo.— A coalition of conservation groups filed suit in federal court today, challenging the Department of Energy’s decision to vastly expand its uranium mining program on 42 square miles of public land near the spectacular Dolores River Canyon, a tributary to the Colorado River in southwest Colorado.

The latest chapter in a Western uranium saga with a deadly legacy, the Department’s decision opens the door for the agency to approve up to 38 uranium mines. The decision, and the analysis upon which it relies, fails to adequately evaluate soil, water, and habitat contamination threats as required by federal law.

"The Department of Energy must thoroughly consider all of the consequences of vastly expanding its uranium leasing and mining program in western Colorado,” said Brian Farnsworth of the Colorado-based Information Network for Responsible Mining (INFORM). “The federal government cannot blindly stumble along with this proposal, which could permanently and irretrievably contaminate precious water, soil, and wildlife habitat .”

Soaring uranium prices in recent years have caused a new uranium boom across the West. In Colorado last year alone, mining claims on public lands jumped to 10,730, from only about 120 five years ago. The Dolores River area is the epicenter of Colorado’s uranium boom, with two additional mines proposed, 4,800 uranium-mining claims staked nearby, and a proposal for a new uranium mill. The cumulative contamination impacts of these uranium developments are not being adequately studied by any of the federal agencies administering them.

The Dolores River is a tributary to the Colorado River — the primary water supply for some 25 million people in seven Western states. Mining claims within 10 miles of the Colorado River increased from 2,568 in January 2003 to 5,545 in January 2008, according to Bureau of Land Management records.

The Dolores and Colorado Rivers support river otters, bald eagles, and four fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act: the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, and humpback and bonytail chub. Uranium-mining contamination such as selenium has been shown to affect reproduction in the four endangered fish and may bio-accumulate, impacting species higher in the food chain like river otters and bald eagles. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, contamination from abandoned uranium-processing facilities has already impacted the Dolores River, and may have contributed to the decline of the endangered Colorado pikeminnow in the Dolores River.

“The Department of Energy shouldn’t gamble with the future of Colorado communities, rivers, mountains and wildlife, by rushing to approve such a large number of new uranium mines — certainly without requiring adequate protections to prevent pollution,” said biologist Megan Mueller of the Center for Native Ecosystems.

Contamination from past uranium development has left a toxic legacy in the region, compelling regional Indian tribes to ban uranium development on tribal lands. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, pollution from active and abandoned metal mines, including uranium mines, has polluted 40 percent of the headwaters in the West. The Atlas Uranium Mill near Moab left behind 16 million tons of uranium tailings on the banks of the Colorado River, contaminating the river with ammonia, uranium, and other toxic pollutants and costing taxpayers more than $1 billion to clean up.

“We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and ensure that our water, our environment and our people are protected from uranium pollution,” added attorney Travis Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center. “It’s deeply troubling that the federal government is spending our taxes planning new mining before contamination from past mining has been cleaned up.”

New uranium-mining proposals near the Grand Canyon prompted several states and water utilities that represent users of Colorado River water, including Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to voice concerns about the risks that the ongoing uranium boom may pose to water quality, drinking water supplies, and public health.

“Local governments are taking a cautious approach to uranium mining near communities and public lands,” said Amy Atwood, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our federal government owes the same cautious approach for communities downstream from the national uranium-leasing program, particularly given its history.”

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