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Activist urges state to step up its radon watch

Published April 5, 2012 6:25 pm

Environment • Uranium Watch official worries about emissions from San Juan mines.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A southern Utah activist wants state regulators to be more thorough and more transparent in how they handle hazardous emissions from Utah's uranium mines.

Sarah Fields, representing Moab-based Uranium Watch, told the Utah Air Quality Board this week that state regulators have failed to carry out basic duties when it comes to cancer-causing radon emissions from uranium mines near La Sal in southeastern Utah's San Juan County.

"I want them [at the Division of Air Quality] to have a regulatory program that they actually implement," she said after the meeting. "How do I get them to pay attention to what they are supposed to do?"

Board members indicated they want to hear from DAQ staff and Denison Mines before making any decisions. And they urged Fields to craft wording for the regulation that she would like to see.

Fields, who is not an attorney, offered: "Maybe I can do that for the May meeting."

Wednesday's meeting was the second time this year board members have heard from Fields. Last month they dismissed her appeal of a Jan. 10 administrative law judge ruling on her concerns about Denison Mines' emissions.

The panel essentially decided she did not raise her concerns in a timely way. But the board did seem to agree with her that DAQ regulations could be clearer in addressing public concerns and informing people about its uranium mine oversight, which has been revived in recent years after a long period of inactivity.

Michael Zody, an attorney for Denison Mines, told the board Wednesday that Fields had raised many more issues than he was prepared to address on the spot, including many that the company would dispute.

He said the uranium operations are "heavily regulated" by state and federal agencies, and he urged the board to "take a measured approach" to any new rules.

"Our position is that we are in compliance," he said. "We think the public is safe."

Fields conceded that Denison's operations now release radon at doses lower than those considered harmful by the Environmental Protection Agency, although that hasn't always been the case. She also insisted DAQ doesn't have all the information it needs to ensure the mines are operating safely.

As an example, she questioned if it was appropriate for DAQ to allow a vent – one that had been cited in an August 2010 notice of violation from the EPA — within a quarter-mile of the La Sal School.

Fields noted that the federal law on hazardous pollutants — the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPS) — includes radioactive gases such as radon, which is blamed for about 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year nationally and is a key factor in the radiation exposure compensation program, which has paid out nearly $1.7 billion in claims to nearly 30,000 people.

A federal regulation details the information required to apply for an emissions permit ­— specifics such as maps and operation plans — as well as procedures to keep the public in the loop about regulatory activities surrounding facilities, Fields said.

"It's not discretionary," she said of the state's responsibility to carry out the law. "I believe the division does not want to administer these regulations under the NESHAPS and [that role] should be returned to EPA."


Twitter: @judyfutah




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