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Near the starting line

Nov 28, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Next week's EIS hearing on a proposed uranium mine is a big step forward

Fremont County has never been closer to the resumption of uranium mining than it is at this moment. When it happens, it will add a layer of economic strength which, if managed and monitored properly, will put our county on very solid economic footing.

For years our newspaper has carried headlines speculating on the market price of uranium, touting the prospects of this company or that one to look at mining again, and detailing the painstaking application and permitting processes faced by miners.

There has been a sense of impatience among the public, but the 2010s are a lot different from the 1950s, when the mines that would become Fremont County's greatest employers in history were getting started. It's a lot harder to get going now than it was then.

Today's mining pros are nothing if not patient, and finally it appears that the stars have aligned in the proper configuration in terms of market price, economic climate, energy policy and regulatory timing. Several companies have seen fit to move ahead through the long obstacle course of permitting. A couple could be producing actual ore within a year or two.

First things first, however. The Bureau of Land Management wants to hear the public's opinion on Cameco's plan for the Gas Hills. A draft environmental impact statement has been prepared, intended to examine and predict the effects of the mine on groundwater, air quality, foliage and wildlife habitat, among other things. The first public meeting is at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, at the Riverton Branch Library, with another one the same time the following day at the Fremont County Library in Lander.

Most modern-day uranium mining is a far different physical process from what we remember from uranium's glory days here. The huge, open-pit mine crawling with excavators and haul trucks is no longer the norm. The high-tech process used in most mines nowadays is the in-situ leach method, with very little ground disturbance. That's good news for anyone with environmental concerns -- which is most of us.

The less-good news is that the in-situ method doesn't require nearly as many people to accomplish. It won't take 500 workers to run a mine as it did 40 years ago. Employment still would be significant, but not spectacular.

But that's one of the modernized conditions of the uranium industry that has miners looking at Fremont County again. It's a more efficient process, which means a less costly one, and that factor keeps the big mining firms engaged.

Cameco isn't the only company interested. Riverton-based Strathmore Energy also is deep into its process of opening new uranium mining operations, as is Titan Energy. Others are eyeing our county as well. And it's worth noting that conventional, excavation-style mining is under consideration for some of the properties being analyzed -- along with the higher job figures that would come with it.

This is no longer hypothetical. The minds and money behind these plans wouldn't have carried things to the EIS hearing stage if they weren't dead serious about it. They believe they can do it and believe it will succeed under the intense scrutiny a modern uranium mine is sure to receive.

If they are right, it will be a banner day for employment, assessed valuation, diversity and prestige -- in other words, an economic boost for Fremont County in most of the right places.

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