Western Colorado Congress Targets Energy Development, Possible Green River Nuclear Plant

Keeping land and water clean for future generations is a focus of Western Colorado Congress, a grass-roots group founded in 1980.

By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—Founded in Montrose in 1980, the community advocacy group Western Colorado Congress is still fighting to protect the rights and resources of citizens across the Western Slope. Although WCC is now based in Grand Junction, its Montrose membership continues to be strong and continues to push for reforms that protect the land and water that bring visitors and outside dollars to the region, noted Director of Organizing Frank Smith.

“We are currently working on a variety of issues,” Smith said. “We are non-profit and non-partisan, and focus on bringing Western Slope voices to the state capital, to lobby for conservation and community concerns. Right now, local food is a key economic driver, so we want to make sure that the environment and watershed are protected, for the future of our farms and the health of our communities.

“We are working to increase the distance allowed between oil and gas facilities and occupied buildings, such as a home, school, hospital or church. The distance currently allowed is 300 feet, which is too close for comfort.”

In addition to health and environmental concerns, proximity to oil and gas drilling can impact quality of life, Smith noted.

“Energy development can bring lights, noise, and more traffic,” Smith said. “So we are pushing the state to move rigs further away from occupied structures.”

Plans for the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in Montrose County’s West End region are also on the radar, Smith said, noting that WCC’s more than 1,500 members are nervous about any renaissance of uranium development in Western Colorado.

“Last time, the cost to clean up waste sites from Uravan to Grand Junction to Maybelle alone was more than $900 million,” he said. “So the $12 million retained by the state from the Piñon Ridge developers for issuance of a bond is woefully inadequate. And because Nevada’s proposed Yucca Mountain Waste site is not happening, we are very thankful that the Montrose County Board of Commissioners stated that no waste from other sites is to be brought to this location—there are serious conditions associated with radioactive waste.

“And even though Montrose County has said no, the state does allow for outside waste to be brought in under the current permit,” Smith said, adding that other economic opportunities may be possible for the West End area for which the mill is proposed.

“There is great potential for solar energy, and they have a beautiful river and rock climbing to boot,” he said. “Maybe there could be a recreation-based economy there, one that could be developed to provide more sustainable growth for the West End.”

After all, development of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill is heavily dependent on commodity prices, which fluctuate widely, he said.

“Finally, we are concerned about transportation there,” Smith said. “The roads curve and are dangerous, and come very near to the river.”

Also of concern to WCC members are the 26,000 acres slated for uranium development and leasing near Paradox, Smith said.

“Our members are encouraging cleanup of the old mines before new ones come on,” he said. “Colorado’s mineral belt has one of the largest numbers of un-reclaimed mines in the world. We could create jobs with the cleanup, and while we’re at it, let’s put solar panels on two or three of the brownfields.”

Nuclear energy also has caught the attention of Western Colorado Congress, with discussions about a possible nuclear power plant located in Green River, Utah.

“There is no tangible proposal yet, but water rights have been allocated, and there is a group of investors,” Smith said, and recalled that Western Colorado was the site of four underground nuclear detonations (at Project Rulison and Rio Blanco) in the early years of nuclear energy development.

“Let’s not go down this dangerous path again,” Smith said. “We are working very hard to make sure that this time, Colorado looks before it leaps. The atomic bombs detonated here at various depths were precursors to fracking; today, oil and gas development encroaches.

“It’s time for surface landowners to be able to participate in the decisions made as to mineral rights.”

Other ongoing areas of interest to Western Colorado Congress include the interface between motorized and non-motorized users of public lands, expansion of wilderness areas, the potential venting and re-use of the methane developed through traditional coal mining—“We support the notion of capturing fugitive emissions where it is possible,” Smith said—and increased scrutiny of newer forms of reusable energy.

“We love renewables, but they too need to be done in appropriate locations, at the right scale,” Smith said. “Where and what size are serious considerations.”

Western Colorado Congress was founded in 1980 by Chuck Worley of Cedaredge, to provide a stronger voice for residents of the Western Slope.

“Our primary purpose is to organize citizens who are concerned about resource management decisions, the health of our communities, and sustainable futures,” Smith said.

To learn more, visit Western Colorado Congress online at www.wccongress.org or call 970-256-7650.