Home US Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish.

Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish.

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Energy Fuels’ lobbying campaign, elements of which were first reported by The Washington Post, is part of a wider effort by the long-ailing uranium industry to make a comeback.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon.

For the Navajo, the drive for new mines is a painful flashback.

“Back then, we didn’t know it was dangerous — nobody told us,” Mr. Holiday said, as he pointed to the gashes of discolored rocks that mark where the old uranium mines cut into the region’s mesas. “Now they know. They know.”

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.

It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administration that allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.”

“Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”

Scaling back a monument

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visiting the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah last year. Mr. Zinke has said mining was not a consideration in the decision to shrink the monument.

Credit
Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News, via Associated Press

The trip was one of the earliest made by Mr. Zinke to the vast lands he oversees as secretary of the interior: a visit to Bears Ears, where he struck a commanding figure, touring the rugged terrain on horseback.

A notable presence on Mr. Zinke’s trip was Energy Fuels, the Canadian uranium producer. Company executives openly lobbied for shrinking Bears Ears’ borders, handing out the map that marked the pockets the company wanted removed: areas adjacent to its White Mesa Mill, just to the east of the monument, and its Daneros Mine, which it is developing just to the west.

“They wanted to talk to anyone who’d listen,” said Commissioner Phil Lyman of San Juan County, Utah, a Republican who participated in the tour and is sympathetic to Energy Fuels’ position. “They were there representing their business interest.”

Mr. Zinke has insisted that mining played no role in the decision to shrink Bears Ears, and a department spokeswoman said he had met with interested parties on all sides.

But President Trump has prioritized scrapping environmental regulations to help revitalize domestic energy production. His executive order instructing Mr. Zinke to review Bears Ears said that improper monument designations could “create barriers to achieving energy independence.”

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The Trump administration is shrinking Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent next month. More than 300 uranium mining claims sit inside the current boundaries, a third of which are linked to Energy Fuels.

Credit
The New York Times

In theory, even after President Barack Obama established Bears Ears in 2016, mining companies could have developed any of the claims within it, given proper local approvals. But companies say that expanding the sites, or even building roads to access them, would have required special permits, driving up costs.

Energy Fuels said it had sold its Bears Ears claims to a smaller company, Encore Energy, in 2016. But Encore issued shares to Energy Fuels in return, making Energy Fuels Encore’s largest shareholder, with a seat on its board.

Curtis Moore, an Energy Fuels spokesman, said the company had played only a small part in the decision to shrink Bears Ears. The company proposed scaling back the monument by just 2.5 percent, he said, and was prepared to support a ban within the rest of the original boundaries.

Yet two weeks after Mr. Zinke’s visit, Energy Fuels wrote to the Interior Department arguing there were “many other known uranium and vanadium deposits” in Bears Ears and urging the department to shrink the monument away from the company’s “existing or future operations.” Vanadium is mostly used as a steel additive.

A bill introduced last month by Representative John Curtis, Republican of Utah, would codify Mr. Trump’s cuts to the monument while banning further drilling or mining within the original boundaries. But environmental groups say the bill has little chance of passing at all, let alone before the monument is scaled back next month.

“Come February, anyone can place a mining claim on the land,” said Greg Zimmerman, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group.

New mine, new challenges

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