Written by Paul Day

NATURITA, Colo. (CBS4) – What’s being planned for a desolate valley in southwestern Colorado is creating both hope for the economy and despair for the environment.

Energy Fuels Inc., based in Lakewood, recently won approval from the state to construct and operate a uranium processing mill called Pinon Ridge.

It’s viewed as a godsend by the family of Robert Daniels of Naturita.

“The mill is a blessing for me and my family,” says the unemployed miner.

His wife Lisa is holding down a part-time custodian job as the couple struggles to make ends meet with two young sons.

“It means paying bills, surviving,” she says, fighting back tears.

(credit: CBS)

Pinon Ridge would be located on an 880 acre site in the Paradox Valley some 12 miles west of Naturita. Five hundred tons of uranium and vanadium ore would move through the mill each day.

The process involves crushing the material, leaching it with sulfuric acid and concentrating it to form yellowcake. The yellowcake is packed into barrels and shipped elsewhere to be made into fuel rods for nuclear power plants.

Critics of the new Pinon Ridge project recall the troubling history of uranium mining in Colorado.

“It’s never been done in a way that hasn’t contaminated the surrounding environment,” says Hilary White, Executive Director of Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA).

The regional environmental group is based in Telluride and has 400 members, according to White. SMA actively fought the project before it was approved and now is considering whether to file a lawsuit or seek an appeal.

“I don’t worry at all about an appeal,” says Stephen Antony, president of Energy Fuels.

In a recent tour of the Pinon Ridge Site, Antony showed CBS4 weather monitoring stations which keep detailed scientific records of wind speed and direction as well as precipitation. There are also 9 groundwater monitors, which convinced the state there would be no impact to neighboring water supplies from the mill operation.

The Environmental Impact Analysis released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment makes the following statement about limiting offsite storm water discharge:

“The mill, ore pad, tailings cells and evaporation pads have been designed as zero-discharge facilities.”

“What is zero discharge?” asks SMA’s White.

She provides her own answer: “It’s a marketing term that Energy Fuels made up, I’ll bet BP (British Petroleum) said zero discharge for the Gulf oil spill too.”

But there’s no question the people living in and around Naturita could use the jobs. The town’s population is shrinking. Businesses are boarded up.

Energy Fuels says more than 300 local jobs could be created directly and indirectly by building and running the new mill.

“We would be able to keep our kids here,” says John Reams, owner of Reams Construction Company in Naturita.

He expects to hire more workers if the mill is built.

Reams says there’s a common misperception that locals are so desperate they’ll take the new jobs whether they’re safe or not.

“That’s not true. We only want the jobs and we only want the mill if it’s safe,” says the construction company boss.

The health of mill workers, as well as the public, is an issue that worries another critic of the project.

“The problems result when you start grinding this ore up into sand size particles,” says Ben Williams, an online investigative reporter for Examiner.com.

Williams, a resident of Norwood, says he attended many of the public meetings about Pinon Ridge and became a concerned citizen.

“If (those particles) are ingested or inhaled the danger associated with them increases dramatically,” he contends.

Williams doesn’t trust the assurances from the state health department that both mill workers and the public will be protected by strict controls on radioactive dust.

“Previous uranium operations in this part of the state were careless about protecting worker health,” says Richard White, Vice President of Exploration for Energy Fuels.

“The most significant problem in the past is they were allowed to smoke when they were working,” says the long-time geologist.

Smoking underground is a fire-able offense today and White says modern mine and mill operators are required to take better care of their workforce.

It’s all too late for John Daniels.

“He had to be on oxygen full time,” says Gail Daniels.

She showed CBS4 pictures of her late husband carrying a tank connected to tubes in his nose. John died of complications from a lung disease caused by uranium mining. But even this mining widow supports the new mill.

“I’ve been to all the meetings and I feel like from all their explanations it was going to be totally safe,” explains Gail.

Her deceased husband John was an uncle to Robert Daniels, the unemployed miner from Naturita hoping to find work.

“You know at this time in the economy you got to hang on to something and we’re hanging on to the mill,” says Robert.

Without it, the family would be forced to do the unthinkable and leave Naturita.

“This is where we want to raise our boys,” adds Lisa said. “We don’t want to move to a city.”