Uranium dreams

Coram wrong to ignore environmental dangers and encourage false hopes

Keywords: Durango Herald,

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was on the wrong side of history Monday on several fronts. In opposing Senate Bill 192, he took on the role of a lobbyist, argued against a popular and prudent environmental protection and, at the same time, played off of the unrealistic hopes of economically challenged towns. It was not his finest hour.

SB 192 is a bill meant to address the kind of environmental disaster experienced by Cañon City when the Cotter uranium mill poisoned a neighborhood’s groundwater. It sets minimum standards for groundwater cleanup before a company can be absolved of further responsibility. It also mandates that uranium and thorium mines be licensed by the state health department if they use a process that involves injecting water into rock formations.

These are basic environmental controls and should not be controversial. Nonetheless, Coram led the opposition to the bill and dragged it out into the wee hours. In doing so, he argued that the bill could kill a potential $3 billion vanadium industry on the Western Slope. Vanadium is found together with uranium and is used in manufacturing batteries.

For starters, Coram owns uranium and vanadium mines, and with that he was functioning more as a lobbyist than a legislator.

Worse, though, he was propagating and perpetuating hoary myths. In the 21st century, environmental regulations do not hinder industry; they enable it. Serious economic enterprises depend on strong environmental controls to legitimize their activities, shield them from critics and give them the protection of law and policy. What are put at risk are fly-by-night operators and those whose business model depends on cutting corners. Mining in particular is a business where, historically, profits too often have been dependent on slipshod practices and evading responsibility by palming off costs on future generations.

Colorado has learned from its past – and from the millions of taxpayer dollars the state has spent reclaiming and cleaning up after closed or abandoned mines. The state is not eager to allow unregulated or unaccountable mining operations to go forward, whether mining for uranium, vanadium or anything else. Voters and officials alike have too much experience with how that works and have paid too much.

Coram was evoking an economic vision from the 1950s, one that even then was not matched by reality. There is no $3 billion vanadium industry on the Western Slope. And given the realities of the 21st century – including regulations such as those he was decrying – there probably will not be one.

And with that, suggesting that a resurgence of uranium mining could be an economic fix for depressed towns borders on cruel. Referring to Nucla and Naturita, Coram told his fellow lawmakers, “You can kill their opportunity. You can spoil their dreams.” But the real history of uranium mining in the West is that more than anything, it killed not dreams or opportunity, but miners.

The House passed SB 192 on Monday with a 43-22 vote. At the last minute Coram was able to strip out part of the bill to which he objected. In the end, though, that simply shows that progress comes in fits and starts. In the past, the ethos of mining was essentially anything goes. Colorado has moved beyond that.