Dawn Mining Co. got a license Tuesday to import radioactive uranium mill tailings to pay for cleaning up its abandoned uranium mill in Ford.
The license allows Dawn to start making a deal with the federal government or other organizations that want to remove mildly radioactive tailings from urban areas.
State Health Secretary Bruce Miyahara said the plan “satisfies this agency’s concerns for the protection of the public health and the environment, and avoids unnecessary legal costs for Washington taxpayers.”
Dawn is nearly bankrupt and its wealthy parent, Newmont Mining of Denver, refuses to pay for the cleanup. The mill and the nearby Midnite Mine that fed it were established before environmental laws required adequate cleanup bonds.
State officials say it would be difficult to pierce the “corporate veil” that protects Newmont from Dawn’s cleanup responsibility. The plan to raise money by importing uranium tailings also would help clean up the Midnite Mine, which poses a greater environmental threat than the mill.
Several hurdles, possibly including a lawsuit, still must be cleared before shipments can begin.
Springdale, Wash., resident Owen Berio said the Dawn Watch coalition of environmental organizations plans a lawsuit to block the project.
That group and others already have filed appeals of the environmental impact statement that allowed Miyahara to license the project. The appeals were held in abeyance until the license was issued, but now will proceed to an administrative law judge, perhaps in May.
The license is valid until a judge overturns it or issues an injunction, according to Bill Williams, a senior assistant state attorney general.
Other obstacles to the project include selection of a transportation route for the tailings. The license calls for the Health Department to approve the route and for Dawn to improve rural roads not designed to handle the heavy truck traffic.
The license also precludes any shipments until they are approved by a yet-unformed committee of Ford residents as well as Health Department experts.
The state Ecology Department also would have to determine that the proposed shipments contained no state or federally designated hazardous or dangerous wastes.
The license allows Dawn’s plasticlined tailings pit to receive waste from the Midnite Mine as well as several by products of nuclear fission.
However, the fission byproducts will be limited to trace amounts caused by fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, said T.R. Strong, director of the Health Department’s Radiation Division.
One of the biggest obstacles is the 138 million gallons of acidic, radioactive water in the partially filled 28-acre tailings pit.
A new impoundment must be built and the water must be pumped into it. Then the sludge at the tailings already at the bottom of the pit must dry before any more may be deposited.
“At the very earliest, it would be the summer of 1996 before that could happen,” Strong said. “I think it would be a stretch to do that.”
That means there will be plenty of time to resolve other issues, Strong said.
Tuesday’s decision was hailed by Lois Heglin, one of several Ford residents who have spent years fighting for a cleanup of the abandoned uranium mill site.
“I’m pleased, very pleased,” Heglin said. “I’m just very glad that it’s coming to the point where we can start cleaning the mess up. It’s a long hard battle that we fought.”
Dawn issued a backhanded compliment. Noting the decision took eight years, the company said Tuesday’s action “proves that the system - while slow - can still work.”
Dawn Watch’s Berio termed the Health Department action “very disappointing,” if not unexpected. He reserved most of his criticism for Gov. Mike Lowry.
“We know that hundreds, if not thousands, of postcards and phone calls have been sent to the governor, just about all of them in opposition to this,” Berio said.
“It proves perhaps that Gov. Lowry is the governor of big business rather than the people of the state,” Berio said.
He said Lowry apparently “buckled” under pressure to grant the license before March 1 so Dawn can bid on disposal of federal stockpiles of uranium mill waste.