A former geologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Utah, Frank Bain says he’s betting his future on a small uranium claim in rural Catron County, New Mexico.
Staked when Bain worked for Vane Minerals in 2009, the Deer Claim, about 15 miles north of Datil, New Mexico, ended up in Bain’s hands after a disagreement with his former employer. Now he’s part of a wave of small-time uranium prospectors taking a second look at a remote part of New Mexico long left in the dust by uranium companies looking for ore in the 1960s and 1970s.
“There’s actually a proven resource of three to four million pounds of uranium,” Bain said, referring to the Deer Claim.
New Mexico is seeing renewed interest in both conventional and in situ uranium mining and exploration.
In the last year, the Cibola National Forest has received four requests for approval to explore for uranium around the Datil Mountains in Catron County, including one from Bain and three from Red Basin LLC. Red Basin is part of the Canadian company Strategic Resources, which received state approval in February to begin drilling on two of the claims. (A Strategic Resources representative could not be reached for comment.)
The U.S. Forest Service received a fifth request to explore on another Datil-area uranium claim just in the last few weeks, said Calvin Parson, the agency’s lead on the projects.
Farther north in Cibola and McKinley counties, the uranium mining districts at Church Rock, Grants and Mt. Taylor between Gallup and Albuquerque are seeing new interest, with several major mining and milling operations proposed since 2008.
The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division is considering at least four new hard-rock uranium mining permits in the area, while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which permits new uranium mills and in situ leach uranium mining operations in most states, is considering permit applications for three proposed conventional hard-rock uranium mills and two leach uranium mines.
In situ mines use a chemical to leach the uranium from the rock below ground possibly threatening groundwater in some places. The technique allows uranium companies to avoid having to mill hard rock to extract the ore.
Environmental groups are focusing on the potential impacts of the larger mine proposals in Cibola and McKinley counties.
“In situ leach mines at Crown Point and Church Rock, a proposed mine at Mt. Taylor — those are the places we and our clients are placing our resources,” said Eric Jantz, staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “These (smaller) exploration projects aren’t benign, just not as destructive as the larger projects.”
But Bain said the uranium ore near Datil is best exploited by using the same method some of the larger uranium companies are using.
“It’s fairly shallow out there,” he said. “It’s ideal for in situ leach mining.”
But Bain said he’s not yet sure in situ mining will be the best way to get the uranium out of the ground, and he may mine the ore conventionally.
Paul Robinson, research director for the Southwest Resource Information Center, an Albuquerque conservation group, said he’s skeptical that the uranium industry will strike it big in New Mexico anytime soon.
“I don’t think there’s any likelihood for strong demand for new production for uranium in the U.S.,” he said, citing a 2010 International Atomic Energy Agency Red Book report showing a bright future for uranium production worldwide over the next 25 years.
“There is almost no growth in the U.S. uranium production through 2030,” he said. “The buzz about uranium production is all marketing, not demand.”
He said the state has seen a long-term trend of small uranium companies with no history of production buying up records of former exploration projects to help the companies raise money.
“The trend has more to do with rounding up investors,” Jantz said. “Irrespective of the industry’s press releases, conventional mining at least has a real problem in that there’s only one mill in the entire U.S. to deal with this stuff. That’s the White Mesa mill in Blanding (Utah).”
A second mill may soon begin construction in western Colorado after the state issued Energy Fuels Resources Inc. a permit to build the Piñon Ridge uranium mill west of Telluride.
“I don’t know if it would be economic to ship that ore that far,” but if a proposed mill near Grants is approved, “that’s a real possibility there, too,” Bain said.
He’s banking on the hope that Jantz and Robinson are wrong about the future of New Mexico uranium production, even with new doubt cast on the industry amid the nuclear crisis in Japan, he said.
Regardless of the tragedy, he said, America’s energy future is in nuclear power.
“Yeah, I think it’s going to happen,” Bain said. “It’s my retirement.”
Bobby Magill can be found online at www.bobbymagill.com.