Standard Uranium Inc. officials don't think mineral deposits outside of Maybell will yield the quality of ore that makes mining profitable, but with uranium prices nearing $30 a pound, they're willing to try.
Moffat County Cares is trying to stop them, and as of Wednesday, it was the only one.
Moffat County Cares is a grassroots organization formed to stop plans to bring low-level radioactive waste to fill former uranium mining pits outside of Maybell, but the group also opposes the resumption of any uranium-related activity in the area.
On Wednesday, members of Moffat County Cares submitted a letter to the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners opposing Standard Uranium's request to lease 1,100 acres north of Juniper Springs. The company's goal is to mine uranium on that lease in conjunction with 15 square miles it already holds the rights to.
The land board will meet at 10 a.m. Aug. 26 at the Pueblo Marriott Inn for a hearing about the request. Board members can grant it, deny it or table it if there is a lack of information.
County officials were given the opportunity to comment about the proposal. Gena Hinkemeyer, assistant to the Moffat County Commissioners, said she gave a request for comments to the commissioners and the Natural Resource, Planning, and Road and Bridge departments.
None were returned.
"To my knowledge, we don't oppose it," Hinkemeyer said. "We've had uranium mining here before. It would be good for the county, as far as jobs go."
Granting the lease doesn't mean that the company will mine or that the state will issue it a permit to do so. The lease only allows Standard Uranium to access the property.
The county will make the final decision about whether to issue Standard Uranium a special-use permit to open a mine. That decision won't go before commissioners until Standard Uranium has received a permit from the state to open a mine, which is separate from its request to lease state lands.
"That's when local people can really line up to say 'yes' or 'no,'" said Mark Davis, minerals manager for the state land board.
Frank Ludeman, manager of business development for Standard Uranium, said that uranium was selling for between $8 a pound and $10 a pound two years ago, but that supply shortages have driven up the price, sending companies back to old pits to determine whether they have the resources to be re-opened.
"Right now, we're still in an information-gathering mode," he said. "It's a slow process."
Standard estimates there are 40 million pounds of uranium available in the areas it's looking to mine, but questions remain about the quality of the ore and its accessibility.
"The problem with Maybell is it's very, very low grade, and it always has been," he said.
If the company's findings indicate there are at least 10 million pounds of economically recoverable ore available, that likely will trigger the years-long process of getting the permits to open a mine. Ludeman estimates that a uranium mine would employ 40 to 50 people, but he isn't optimistic there ever will be a mine.
"It'll be tough to find 10 million pounds in all that," he said. "It depends on the data. If it looks like the grade is just not going to be there, then it may not be worth it."
The Canadian-based Standard Uranium Inc. has mines in Wyoming and Arizona.
"We've got other fish to fry," Ludeman said. "We're working on those while we're investigating this."
The company is in the data-collection phase. It still must interpret that data, drill exploratively and conduct a feasibility study. If it is shown there is uranium to mine, the company will seek a financial partner, undertake the one- to two-year permitting process and then begin operations.
Ludeman said it could be five years before a mine is opened, if there are indications mining in Northwest Colorado would be profitable.
"These things take a long time," Ludeman said. "You've got to jump through the permit hoops and do the right thing. We want to keep everybody informed about what we're doing. We want to do it right; we're not 1950s miners anymore."
Open pits still scar the land outside of Maybell, where uranium mines were prevalent in the 1950s. But, the look of the land is only one of the concerns Northwest Colorado Cares has with Standard Uranium's proposal.
"Northwest Colorado Cares does not wish to see the leases awarded for uranium mining," its letter of protest reads. "The problems it will create far outweigh any monetary benefits."
Terrie Barrie, the group's spokeswoman, has fought for years to get former Rocky Flats workers health care. Her concern is the health risk workers will face, as well as the risk residents face having radioactive particles in the air.
"Workers hired on to the mines will not be covered under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act as it is written today," the letter reads. "If they contract a radiation-related occupational disease, whose latency period can run as high as 10 years, will the mining company still be around to compensate the worker for the medical expenses and lost wages?"
Ludeman thinks the concerns are groundless.
"There's so much evidence that uranium mining doesn't spread radiation far and wide," he said. "Studies show that uranium miners and farmers get the same dose of radiation from their work environments."
Should mining operations begin, Ludeman thinks they will be underground because the uranium accessible from the surface has been exhausted.
Northwest Colorado Cares members also stated their concerns with the clean-up when operations cease, saying that the need could cost the state more than the lease would bring in revenue.
"The income from the lease may approach $100,000 for the state's coffers and temporarily ease the budget crunch a bit, but the long-term environmental damage may actually have a negative economic impact," the group's letter reads.