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The White Canyon mining district yielded thousands of tons of uranium ore during the Cold War, but the area west of Blanding has gone silent in recent years, thanks to collapsing interest in nuclear power.
But one company remains bullish on Utah's uranium deposits and hopes to greatly expand its idled operations at a San Juan County mine that happens to be in the heart of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.
Energy Fuels Resources' (EFR) Daneros Mine, located in a narrow canyon spilling off the west side of Cedar Mesa, began producing uranium ore in 2010 and yielded 123,000 tons before shutting down in October 2012, when the price of uranium oxide slid in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown.
Yet within months the company petitioned the Bureau of Land Management to modify its mine plan to bump production from 100,000 tons of ore over seven years to 500,000 tons over 20 years, along with an increase in its mine footprint from 4.5 to 46 acres. Last month, the BLM released a draft environmental assessment and opened a public comment period that closes Monday.
President Barack Obama is considering a controversial proposal brought by five tribes to designate a national monument for 1.9 million acres on Cedar Mesa, the Abajos and other areas surrounding the sacred Bears Ears Buttes. These lands are rich in archaeological resources and are at risk of vandalism and looting.
The Navajo and Hopi tribes have both informed BLM of their concerns about the damage that mining operations could do to ancient cultural sites that may exist near the Daneros Mine.
And environmental groups say the project, which covers 141 unpatented mining claims on public land, warrants a more rigorous review.
"Here you have a uranium mine near Natural Bridges National Monument and in the heart of Bears Ears that is going to have a 10-fold expansion," said Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director for Grand Canyon Trust. "This ore is really low grade so they have to do destructive mining. Here you have a large mine to take a very minimal amount of uranium."
According to the environmental assessment and other documents, Daneros ore contains between .22 and .28 percent uranium oxide, a commodity currently selling for about $25 a pound on the spot market. That's about half the price it fetched when EFR idled the mine and sent home Daneros' 14 employees. Framed another way, Daneros' projected 25,000-ton annual ore haul would produce uranium worth about $3.3 million at current depressed prices. This yield is not subject to a federal royalty, as is the case with coal, oil and gas.
Earlier that year, Energy Fuels, based in Lakewood, Colo., acquired most of Utah's uranium properties, holdings that now include 10 mines and the nation's only operating mill at White Mesa. An executive did not respond to a request for comment.
The publicly traded company holds a small-mine state permit, and has an application for a permit for a large mine pending before the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
As of the end of 2013, according the assessment, 100 nuclear reactors were generating power for American homes and businesses, consuming 47 million pounds of uranium fuels. Yet the U.S. produces only 4.6 million pounds, while the remaining 83 percent of material consumed in U.S. reactors comes from overseas.
EFR intends to resume operations at Daneros once economic conditions improve. Ore would be stored temporarily at the mine and covered trucks would haul it 62 miles down State Route 95 and U.S. Highway 191 to the White Mesa mill. Fifteen trips a day are anticipated. No processing would occur at the mine site in Bullseye Canyon, five miles southwest of Fry Canyon. The operations would employ 40.
Sarah Fields of Moab-based Uranium Watch contends the mine plan fails to account for major floods that periodically strike this area during the late-summer monsoon season.
"A flood in 2013 washed out their system for controlling run-off and culverts. It created a mess. There is no mention in the [environmental assessment] of more intense flood events that they should take into consideration," the longtime industry watchdog said. "It's in a very narrow canyon that will eventually erode and they have no plan for long-term care."
Meanwhile, the company has recently acquired control of a 640-acre state school trust section adjacent to the mine-permit area, bringing the total of state lands under lease for uranium here to 3,450 acres, according to financial disclosures filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration officials emphasize the state lands are not part of the Daneros analysis and there are no active mining proposals for the checkerboard sections leased by EFR.
According to the assessment, the portal area of the Daneros mine has reached its capacity for storing non-ore-bearing waste rock and the mine's plan will need to be changed. Tapping the Shinarump portion of the Chinle Formation, the mine uses a random room-and-pillar mining technique in which machinery searches for the richest deposits in a seam four to five feet thick.
The proposed mine plan calls for drilling 22 exploratory holes, sinking eight new ventilation shafts, and rehabilitating the existing Bullseye and South portals associated with historic mining operations.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.