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Mine owner says project could bring 165 jobs

Apr 16, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Representatives of Energy Fuels said they plan to build the uranium processing plant and mine eight miles south of Jeffrey City.

The new owner of the Sheep Mountain uranium project expects the mine to provide 165 high paying jobs in Fremont County if permits and commodity prices allow.

Denver-based Energy Fuels Inc. acquired the site when the company bought Titan Uranium in February 2012.

Representatives of Energy Fuels told the Fremont County Commission on April 9 that they plan to build a uranium processing plant and mine the radioactive fuel eight miles south of Jeffrey City.

The county board questioned the officials about benefits to local communities and environmental impacts.

Public relations director Curtis Moore said Sheep Mountain would be a significant facility for his company, which has several mines but only one uranium-processing mill.

"It would become a second production site for us and our largest uranium resource," he said.

Energy Fuels estimates about 30 million pounds of uranium lie in the ground at Sheep Mountain. Plans call for open pit and underground mining and a heap leach processing facility.

At the processing plant, an acidic solution will leach uranium from mined piles of ore. The uranium laden solution will then flow through pipes to a facility where it will be extracted and formed into yellow cake.

Expectations

Forecasts show the mine could operate for 15 years and produce 1.5 million pounds of fuel per year. Energy Fuels anticipates the mines will employ 130 people. Construction of the processing facility will employ 110 people, and its operation will provide 35 jobs.

Environmental manager Kim Morrison said her company will hire about half of the mining workers from the local population, and about 30 percent of the uranium mill's employees will be local.

Lander community resource coordinator Gary Michaud asked about wages.

Moore said a similar proposed Energy Fuels's facility in Colorado would pay $45,000 to $75,000 a year for miners and more than $100,000 a year for mill workers, all including benefits.

Mining would start in 2015 and construction on the mill would start a year later, according to the company's plan.

Two other uranium mines, both in the Gas Hills east of Riverton, are in the permitting process for Fremont County.

Permits and prices

Permits and uranium prices pose challenges to the proposed mine.

Morrison expects the Bureau of Land Management to finish a draft environmental impact statement on the mine by the end of this year or early next year.

Permits from five other agencies still are needed. Energy Fuels plans to submit applications to several agencies by the end of the year, but the permit for the processing plant could take up to two and a half years, Moore said.

Current spot prices are around $42 per pound, though Moore said Energy Fuels gets prices of up to $58 per pound selling through long-term contracts.

He said the spot price has been as low as $40 per pound in November, but before the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, which slowed demand, the price of uranium was more than $70 per pound.

"We do see prices increasing slowly, as 2013 ends going to high the 40s, maybe 50," Moore said. "That will probably accelerate in 2014."

Still, five of Energy Fuels's seven fully permitted uranium mines are inactive because the price of the product is not high enough. The company has two other mines that have not yet received permits.

Commission concerns

The Sheep Mountain mining site could have a total of 40 acres of used uranium ore, called tailings, and ore piled in its heap leeches.

Commissioner Stephanie Kessler asked how the company would prevent water contamination.

Morrison said a three-layered barrier would be under the ore piles, which is more than required by regulation.

"It's going to be quite robust," she said.

The water table is also well below the depth of the mine, Morrison said.

Commissioner Larry Allen asked how spent uranium ore is handled.

Morrison said her company would cover them with closure including a radon barrier.

"I think it's great you're going out there proactively educating folks," Kessler said. "I would also suggest you be proactive with the conservation community of the area and seek out their concerns early."

Commissioners Travis Becker and Keja Whiteman suggested the company work with Central Wyoming College and the planned Job Corps center to have more residents prepared to work at the uranium mine when it opens.

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