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Lawmakers Want Public Input On Colorado Uranium Mine

JUDITH KOHLER, Associated Press Writer

DENVER (AP) ― Two members of the state's congressional delegation sent a letter Monday urging federal officials to involve the public as they consider any permits for a proposed uranium mine in northern Colorado.

The letter from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Betsy Markey to the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency said people are concerned about Powertech USA's proposed uranium mine near Nunn, about 70 miles north of Denver.

The Democratic lawmakers said there is also concern the EPA is drafting rules for a mining permit without public input. Bennet and Markey said people have voiced fears of the potential effects on groundwater.

"There's no reason to rush forward with this proposal when Colorado's water and a way of life could be at risk," Bennet said.

Regional EPA officials will carefully review the letter, agency spokesman Richard Mylott said. The agency is committed to protecting the groundwater and looks forward to engaging the public in the decision-making, he added.

Powertech, whose parent company is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, didn't immediately return a call for comment Monday.

The company has proposed an in-situ, or "in place," mine. Treated water would be pumped underground to dissolve the mineral. The uranium then would be pumped to the surface.

Powertech would need permits from the state and EPA to begin mining. The EPA set a public hearing Dec. 21 in Nunn for a permit that the company needs to reinject groundwater it pumps out to learn more about the geology.

Of more pressing interest is a permit the company would need to inject chemicals underground to dissolve the uranium, said Jeff Parsons, an attorney with the Western Mining Action Project, which advocates mining reforms.

Parsons said documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and his conversations with regional EPA officials lead him to believe the agency is writing guidelines for the permit without public input. He said federal law requires an agency to conduct a formal rule-making process that would include the public.

States typically regulate the kind of mining Powertech plans to do, but Colorado doesn't have such regulations. Parsons said this would be the first time the EPA issued an in-situ leach mining permit and that federal officials appear to be beefing up their guidelines.

"We're happy that they recognize the regulations are not adequate and need to be fleshed out," Parsons said. "But we're also critical of the lack of public outreach."

Powertech would need permits from the state natural resources and health departments.

State officials expect the company to submit applications over the next several months, said Warren Smith, a community involvement manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The licensing process would take roughly 15 months, Smith said, and public hearings would be held. The state is considering an application from a different company that wants to build a uranium mill in western Colorado.

Colorado officials are also writing regulations for a 2008 law intended to protect water quality from in-situ leach mining.