Gov. Matt Mead has asked the state's attorney general to intervene in a lawsuit against a uranium project near Rawlins.
Mead wants to "protect Wyoming's interest," he said in a media release issued Wednesday. The attorney general's office filed a motion this week to intervene in the case in the U.S. District Court in Wyoming.
The Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed suit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in early November over Ur-Energy's Lost Creek uranium project, most of which is on federal land.
The group said in its filing that the project is within important core protection areas for the protected sage grouse. It also said that the federal agency failed to ensure protections mandated by the state of Wyoming and a BLM internal memorandum when it approved development plans for the Lost Creek project. The group is asking for a second review of the BLM's approval of the project.
The state's move is significant because it's the primary protector of the sage grouse.
Mead signed the most recent sage grouse executive order in June 2011, an update to a 2010 plan issued by then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal. The current sage grouse protection plan states that no surface disturbance may occur within six-tenths of a mile of a sage grouse breeding ground, no main haul road may be within 1.9 miles and that there may be only one oil and gas well pad or one mining site per square mile.
"Wyoming has put a lot of resources into making sure this mine operates in a safe and responsible manner," Mead said in the release explaining his decision to intervene in the suit. "This project provides energy for the nation, jobs for Wyoming and revenue to local, state and federal governments."
A BLM memorandum issued in December 2011 said the agency must consider a "reasonable range" of ways to conserve the land when reviewing land planning documents.
Sage grouse population numbers have been shrinking for decades. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the grouse deserves Endangered Species Act protection but other species needed it more. The agency will consider adding the bird to the endangered species list in 2015, a decision that could force restrictions on oil, gas and coal operations.
The alliance says, among other things, that road construction at the project site is too close to key grouse leks -- or breeding grounds -- and that the project plans contain too many wells per acre.
"It’s really interesting that Governor Mead is going to be jumping in to spend taxpayer dollars that very clearly violates his policies," Erik Molvar, the group's executive director, said Wednesday. "It’s kind of sad to see how far people will go to get away with destroying sage grouse habitat."
Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Wednesday that the governor wants to support the review work done by both state and federal regulators.
"The state had a significant interest and several state agencies have worked hard over the last five years to get a good plan to make sure that project is done in a safe, responsible manner," MacKay said.
Ur-Energy, the company developing the project, filed papers with the court on Tuesday to become involved in the review process and also asked to file a brief in opposition to the suit.
Wayne Heili, UR-Energy's president and chief executive officer, said Wednesday that he believes the company's plan for the area as approved by the BLM will hold up in court.
"In order to develop within a core area, the executive order requires that you can demonstrate that you will not have an impact on sage grouse populations," Heili said. "We have made that demonstration to the satisfaction of the state, the BLM, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and everybody who’s reviewed this."
The alliance filed both a request for a review of the BLM's record of decision and an injunction to stop construction and other potentially destructive work at the site. Molvar said he's unsure of when the matters might be considered, but Heili said he expects preliminary hearings to begin before the year's end.
"I’m proud of the work that Ur-Energy has done and am pleased with the work regulatory agencies have done," Heili said. "I fully expect that the decision of the BLM will stand the test of this challenge and the Lost Creek project will be allowed to move forward."
The Lost Creek facility will include well fields utilizing in-situ recovery, in which a solution is pumped into the ground to extract uranium. Ur-Energy also plans to build a processing facility at the site, located about 40 miles northwest of Rawlins. The company began construction on the project earlier this year and expects to produce uranium from the site by early next summer.