Nov 28, 2012 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterUranium mining is a step closer to returning to Fremont County. The Bureau of Land Management Lander Field Office has released a draft environmental impact study of a proposed new uranium mine in the Gas Hills Mining District, and meetings are scheduled next week to hear public comment.
Canadian company Power Resources Inc., which is doing business as Cameco Resources, wants to build five in-situ recovery mine units on 8,500 acres in the Gas Hills. If approved, the Cameco mine would be the first new uranium mine in Fremont County in decades.
The industry once was Fremont County's largest employer, but nearly 3,000 jobs were lost when the mines closed in the early to mid-1980s.
The Gas Hills Mining District straddles the county line between Fremont and Natrona counties, about 45 miles east of Riverton.
The BLM also is conducting an EIS on another Fremont County uranium mine project and received a permit application for a third.
An in-situ mine pumps water underground through mineral bearing sand, dissolving the mineral. Then the mine pumps that water back to the surface and where the minerals are removed from the water.
In the EIS, the BLM examined the effect of mining in terms of surface disturbance, air quality, water quality, economy, cultural sites and animals.
Kristin Yannone, the environmental and planning coordinator at the BLM Lander Field Office, said the BLM's jurisdiction regarding minerals like uranium is to ensure mining operations do not cause undo or unnecessary degradation to a federal surface.
The BLM has more discretion regarding oil and gas development, she said. Though the BLM tries to be reasonable, the agency can say yes or no on any basis when it comes to hydrocarbons, Yannone said.
"We have not found anything that says (the Cameco mine) would cause undo or unnecessary degradation," Yannone said.
The BLM has by no means given the go ahead though. It is allowing members of the public to point out anything the BLM overlooked. Interested parties can attend a public meeting or submit comments in writing.
The meetings are 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, at the Riverton Branch Library, 1330 W. Park Ave., and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the Lander Library, 200 Amoretti St.
"We're still reviewing the EIS draft," said Ken Vaughn, Cameco manager of public and government affairs. "But we're encouraged there's progress being made. We're looking forward to the public meetings."
A resource protection alternative to the mine, or RPA, as Cameco proposed it, is also a part of the EIS. The RPA is simply a redesign of the mine to limit adverse effects to public lands.
"We went through and looked at everything Cameco wanted to accomplish and said, 'Is there a way to do that with less impact to the environment?'" Yannone said.
One goal of the RPA is to limit surface disturbance.
"It's sometimes difficult to replace vegetation that's been removed after any disturbance," Yannone said. "Getting the appropriate vegetation is even more difficult.
Cameco's proposal would disturb 1,315 acres. The RPA would disturb 783 acres, roughly 40 percent fewer.
One way the RPA reduces surface disturbance is by using a closed loop drilling system. Yannone said in-situ recovery mines require thousands of wells, and the mine Cameco proposed involves digging a pit for each of those to hold mud that comes out of the ground before it is injected back underground. The RPA suggests using interconnected tanks and hoses to collect that mud before it's re-injected.
"None of the protection devices impede their ability to recover the mineral," Yannone said. "We're waiting to hear from Cameco what are the economic consequences (of those devices). There's a balance between protecting the environment and impeding their ability to recover minerals."
If the land is going to be disturbed, Yannone said, it is best to get all of the mineral out so the local community and the nation gets the full economic benefit. More taxes are paid and employees stay longer.
The community would benefit from either alternative because under either plan, Cameco would have to improve the road between Riverton and the Gas Hills Mining District.
The EIS anticipates both options would employ a peak of 85 to 96 people directly and provide indirect jobs for an unknown number of additional people. The project would last about 25 years from initial construction to the final step of recovering disturbed land.
Pros and cons
In-situ recovery mining has some environmental advantages over other uranium mining methods, but it has its drawbacks as well. With in-situ mining, the surface disturbance is limited to drillings wells, Yannone said. There is no pit to maintain, and the mine is easier to remove.
Open pit and underground uranium mines also leave tailings, the radioactive rocks from which uranium ore has been removed. Many mines leave those on the surface, and dozens of acres can be closed to the public forever once those mines shut down.
In-situ mines, on the other hand, pump their wastewater back into the ground, leaving the surface cleaner.
"People opposed to in-situ say there is much more impact than meets the eye in terms of ground water," Yannone said.
She added that because the BLM's charge is to look after the surface, she could not speak to groundwater effects. Other agencies like the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate those effects, Yannone said.
"Our granting of the rights is conditional on Cameco getting licenses from other agencies," she said.
Cameco has not finished looking at the options the BLM is proposing, and the company will also look at the public's comments, Vaughn said.
"We are committed to protecting the environment and mining in a way that's positive for everyone," he said.
The BLM's Lander Field office will accept written comments until Dec. 31. Residents can e-mail comments to Gas_Hills_Uranium_EIS_WY@blm.gov, fax them to 332-8444 or mail them to Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Kristin Yannone, Lander Field Office, 1335 Main St., Lander, WY 82520.
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