RAWLINS — A uranium mine 30 miles north of Medicine Bow could soon resume mining operations using a previously explored technique with new technology, a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson said.
If approved by the BLM, the Shirley Basin Uranium In-Situ Recovery Project could produce up to 2 million pounds of dried yellowcake uranium annually by injecting underground rock formations with a water-based solution designed to attract uranium. The proposed project is located at an open-pit uranium mine previously active from the 1960s to the 1990s.
“In situ is different than open-pit mining,” BLM Project Lead Annette Treat said. “In situ is a methodology where they drill a well … and they force water down into the formation where the uranium lives … and the uranium attaches to the water.”
Once the water is loaded with uranium, it is drawn up, and the uranium is extracted from the water using reverse osmosis, Treat explained.
“During the reverse osmosis process, the uranium attaches to pellets, pulling it out of the water,” she said. “Then, they run it through a process to extract the uranium from the pellets and put it into a dehydrator and dry it down to what is called yellowcake.”
Located entirely in Carbon County, approximately 37 acres of the project area’s more than 2,600 acres are owned by BLM, according to BLM documents.
“The operation would disturb up to 603 acres, of which 264 acres have already been affected by historical open-pit mining,” the documents state.
Treat said BLM is scheduled to review Pathfinder’s plan of operations early in 2020 before submitting a final decision on the project.
“Because part of the project takes place on BLM land, BLM has to approve the whole project,” she explained.
As part of the BLM application process, Pathfinder submitted an environmental assessment conducted by a contractor and received permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The environmental assessment drives the decision based on the resource impacts and (Pathfinder’s) plan of operations, which sets forth their proposed protective measures,” Treat said.
Earlier this year, the company requested an extension to update their operations plan after receiving input from other governmental agencies, referred to in the application as cooperators.
“Ideally,” Treat said, “(Pathfinder) thought they would have their updated plan of operations to us by mid-December, but it’s now looking like mid-January.”
A two-week public scoping period was conducted by the BLM in March regarding the project, BLM spokesperson Nikki Maxwell said.
“We got one comment from the public, and they said they were in favor,” Maxwell explained. “All other comments were from cooperators.”
After Pathfinder dehydrates the uranium, Treat said it is slated for transportation to an out-of-state processing plant via semi-trucks for further refinement.
“It’s not high enough quality for missiles,” she said. “This level of uranium is primarily used to generate electricity.”
If approved by the BLM, Pathfinder could construct a new, on-site processing plant and begin mining operations in 2020, BLM documents state.
“The life expectancy of this project is about 12 years,” Treat said.