ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Uranium production would be years away
A uranium mine near Grants that’s been idle for 23 years is seeking a shift in its permit status to “active,” although it wouldn’t produce any uranium for years and critics are questioning the about-face.
Rio Grande Resources Corp. applied last month to the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division to revise the Mt. Taylor Mine’s permit by October 2014, when its current “standby” permit is scheduled to expire.
Environmental groups say the sudden shift in plans – the company got its current permit just last year – is curious in light of the soft market for uranium.
But mine manager Joe Lister says the company is anticipating an uptick in demand that wasn’t anticipated when it applied in 2010 for its current permit.
“It’s the largest deposit in the United States, and we believe the uranium market is recovering,” Lister said.
The Grants area is rich in uranium; nearby, companies from Canada and Japan are proposing to jointly develop a new operation, the Roca Honda Mine.
Standby permits allow mines to remain inactive without having to do reclamation. But environmental organizations contend Rio Grande Resources should have been required to do some interim cleanup as a condition of its permit renewal last year.
So they are appealing the standby permit in state District Court.
Faced with the uncertainty of what a judge might order, the company “may have thought it would be cheaper to change the status of the mine to ‘active,’ even though there is no market for their ore and no place to mill it,” said Eric Jantz, a lawyer with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents Amigos Bravos and the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.
A public hearing will be held on the permit application change, but the date hasn’t been set, according to Jim Winchester, spokesman for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
The environmental groups question the need for the permit revision, asserting that the price of uranium is too low to make the mine economically viable, that there is unlikely to be demand for uranium, and that the only operating uranium mill in the nation, in Utah, is unlikely to take the ore. And they say the mine should be required to clean up contamination before it’s allowed to resume operations.
Lister says the mine could produce enough ore to sustain its own mill, and the company plans to build one.
“We’re trying to create opportunities for western New Mexico to dig out of the double-digit unemployment they’re in. … I’d like to see jobs in the area,” Lister said, noting that at one time the Mt. Taylor Mine employed nearly 800 people.
The underground mine, formerly owned by Chevron, produced uranium ore from 1979 to 1982 and from 1985 to ’89, before being shut down in January 1990 because of the depressed uranium market. General Atomics Corp., of which Rio Grande Resources is a subsidiary, bought it in 1991.
According to the company, the mine contains the largest uranium resource in the United States, more than 100 million pounds.
The company’s application to the Mining and Minerals Division indicates that it would take years to get the mine ready to produce again, although it doesn’t give a projected date.
In addition to various repairs, replacements and upgrading of existing facilities, the mine area must be “dewatered” – pumped out – for two to three years to get access to the underground workings for rehabilitation. That access should be gained four to five years after the permit revision, according to the application, and ore production “will begin as soon as possible thereafter.”