Uranium tailings radioactive

A sign marking tailings from a uranium mine in central Utah.

WASHINGTON — Colorado’s members of a U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee split along party lines Tuesday during a hearing on a bill that would severely restrict uranium mining.

The bill, called the Uranium Classification Act, seeks to protect public and tribal lands in western states from uranium mining.

Democrats proposed it in response to the Trump Administration’s “Critical Minerals Strategy” announced June 4. The strategy would classify uranium as a “critical mineral,” thereby relaxing mining restrictions to ensure continued production of it for nuclear energy, medical and military purposes.

Other parts of the strategy would speed up regulatory permits for uranium mining operations. In addition, Interior Department agencies were ordered to review mining bans on federal lands to see whether they could be revised for critical minerals like uranium.

The Uranium Classification Act would remove uranium from the critical mineral list.

Uranium can be found in the Colorado River Basin, where companies like Western Uranium & Vanadium seek to mine it. The company already operates four uranium mines in western and central Colorado.

“I don’t think uranium meets the definition of critical mineral,” Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, said during the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources hearing. 

Like other Democrats, DeGette was concerned about environmental dangers of expanded uranium mining.

Uranium is a dense rock associated with radioactivity and elevated risks of cancer. It is most commonly used as a fuel for nuclear energy reactors. It also can be refined for use in nuclear weapons.

“I’m concerned because there are still 15,000 abandoned uranium mines in the western United States,” DeGette said. About 75% of them lie on federal and tribal lands.

“I think what we should be doing is focusing on addressing the public health impacts of the abandoned mines, not opening new mines to mining,” DeGette said.

However, Colorado U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, expressed concern the United States had become overly dependent on imported uranium.

Most of the uranium used in the United States comes from Australia and Canada. Smaller amounts come from Kazakhstan and China.

“What percentage of uranium in our country is domestically produced versus foreign produced?” Lamborn asked.

“For the past several years, less than 10% of domestic consumption of uranium has been as a result of domestic mining," replied Steven M. Fortier, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center.

Foreign mining companies can produce the mineral inexpensively, largely because they lack the kind of strict environmental standards found in the United States, Fortier said.

U.S. uranium mining companies “are at a clear disadvantage,” Fortier said.

He cautioned that U.S. supplies from allied countries could be cut off because foreign mining companies face stiff competition.

“Those supplies are at risk just as they are in the U.S.,” Fortier said.

Lamborn held out little hope the proposed Uranium Classification Act would win approval in Congress.

“This bill has some real problems though,” he said. “I can’t see any way that it’s ever going to become law.”

The Trump Administration is reviewing a petition by mining companies Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels asking the federal government to require at least a quarter of U.S. uranium to come from domestic suppliers. 

President Donald Trump is expected to announce a decision on the petition within weeks. 

Trump’s new strategy on critical minerals followed a suggestion from Chinese officials who said rare earth minerals could be used as bargaining chips in a trade war with the United States.

Uranium mining companies like Western Uranium & Vanadium either did not respond to questions or declined to comment when contacted by Colorado Politics.

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