The Atomic Energy Act and other legislative actions authorized the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), predecessor agency to the DOE, to withdraw lands from the public domain and then lease them to private industry for mineral exploration and for development and mining of uranium and vanadium ore. A total of 25,000 acres of land in southwestern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah was withdrawn from the public domain during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1949, AEC included portions of these lands in 48 mineral leases that were negotiated with adjacent mine owners/operators. This early leasing program ended in 1962, yielding more than 1.2 million pounds of uranium and 6.8 million pounds of vanadium, and generating $5.9 million in royalties to the federal government.
A second leasing program was initiated in 1974. The previously withdrawn lands were divided into 44 lease tracts and offered to the domestic uranium industry through a competitive bid process. During the next 20 years, more than 1.7 million tons of ore were produced from the lease tracts, yielding approximately 6.5 million pounds of uranium and 33 million pounds of vanadium, and generating $53 million in royalties to the federal government.
In 1994, all existing leases were allowed to expire to give DOE the opportunity to prepare a programmatic Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine if the leasing program should continue. Recognizing that the former leaseholders had a vested interest in their respective lease tracts, DOE authorized the leaseholders access to the lease tracts to maintain their existing operations or perform reclamation. The EA was finalized and approved in July 1995, and a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was issued in August 1995 for the proposed action, which called for the continued leasing of DOE-managed lands for the exploration and production of uranium and vanadium ores.
In 1996, DOE reoffered respective leases to the previous leaseholders. At that time, many former leaseholders opted out of the program, leaving just two leaseholders who chose to continue with their respective, multiple leases. During the ensuing 12-year lease period, limited production resumed at four lease tract mines in May 2003 and continued through November 2005. Approximately 65,400 tons of ore were produced, yielding 327,000 pounds of uranium, 1.4 million pounds of vanadium and generating $4 million in royalties to the federal government.
Lands associated with the single, fully reclaimed lease tract in New Mexico were returned to the public domain in 1994. In 1999, under similar circumstances, lands associated with the five lease tracts located in Utah were also returned to the public domain.
In October 1994, DOE initiated a mine-site reconnaissance program to locate, identify, and quantify the mine-related features associated with the abandoned uranium "legacy" mine sites located on the lease tracts. Subsequently, and based on the information gained during the reconnaissance activities, DOE systematically reclaimed all of its legacy mine sites, the last ones being completed in the summer of 2011.
In April 2008, DOE executed new, 10-year lease agreements with the existing leaseholders of the 13 active lease tracts. In June 2008, DOE executed new, 10-year lease agreements (through a competitive bid process) for 18 of the 19 inactive lease tracts; the remaining lease tract (C-JD-8A) received no bids and was placed on inactive status indefinitely. Subsequent to the execution of leases, lease tract C-JD-7A was incorporated into lease tract C-JD-7, and one of the 18 lease tracts (C-SR-14) was returned to DOE and also placed on inactive status indefinitely.
In early 2011, DOE determined that a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement should be prepared to further assess the potential environmental impacts, including site-specific impacts, associated with program activities that were defined under a reasonable range of alternatives.
On October 18, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that DOE had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing its July 2007 environmental assessment and finding instead of issuing an environmental impact statement. The court invalidated the July 2007 evaluation and finding, stayed the 29 leases in existence under the program, and prohibited DOE from issuing any new leases or approving any activities on lands governed by the program.
The court later granted in part DOE’s motion for reconsideration of the order and amended its injunction to allow DOE; other federal, state, or local governmental agencies; and the current lessees to conduct only necessary activities on program lands. Activities allowed include conducting the environmental analysis; complying regulatory orders; responding to dangers to public health, safety, and the environment; and maintaining the lease tracts and their existing facilities. No mining operations are active on these lands at this time.
DOE announced the public availability of the Final Uranium Leasing Program Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on March 21, 2014. During the evaluation, DOE conducted a 109-day public comment period, held four public meetings in southwestern Colorado, and considered all public comments on the draft PEIS while preparing the PEIS. The PEIS informed DOE’s decision on the future course of the Uranium Leasing Program and DOE issued a Record of Decision on May 6, 2014.