By Les Zaitz
VALE - A mining company now controlled by Russians once operated in the remote reaches of Malheur County and now is at the center of fresh investigations into Hillary Clinton.
Clinton probably never heard of the Aurora Project, a rich uranium deposit in the Trout Creek Mountains a dozen miles west of the border town of McDermitt.
She was acquainted with Uranium One, the firm that controlled that Malheur County site as it started selling itself to Russian interests.
During the 2016 president campaign, Donald Trump and his allies claimed that Clinton as secretary of state approved the sale of control over some U.S. uranium supplies to the Russians. In turn, donors affiliated with Uranium One donated millions to her family’s foundation, they said.
The claims are back in the headlines after the U.S. Justice Department recently advised Congress it is considering whether a special prosecutor should investigate the Uranium One arrangement.
The House Select Committee on Intelligence in October announced it was opening its own investigation into the uranium business, but a committee spokesman said last week there was no information to share.
President Trump recently pressed for an investigation of the uranium deal, comparing the circumstances to Watergate because the sale to the Russians was “so underhanded with tremendous amounts of money being passed.”
Whether those investigations would ever trail to Malheur County is unclear, as Uranium One sold its Oregon holdings about the same time Russians were taking control of the company.
Selling uranium is sensitive since its primary use is in nuclear reactors.
So far, not an ounce of the Malheur County uranium has been sold.
Professional prospectors in 1977 found what the current owner describes as “one of the largest undeveloped uranium deposits in the country.”
The uranium is on U.S. Bureau of Land Management ground. Just to the north are remnants of a mining operation that once was the largest source of mercury in the U.S. Exploration of the Malheur County uranium site stopped in 1980 when prices dropped and ownership of the claims subsequently passed from one company to another.
In 2007, Uranium One took ownership of the 126 mining claims along Disaster Peak Road as part of a corporate takeover. Two years later, a subsidiary of the Russian atomic energy company Rosatom bought 16 percent of Uranium One at a time the company still had its Oregon holdings. In June 2010, Rosatom increased its ownership of Uranium One to take a controlling interest.
Just one month earlier, Uranium One sold off the Malheur County claims and exited the state.
The new owner was Oregon Energy LLC, a subsidiary of a huge Australian mining company.
Oregon Energy aggressively pursued the uranium deposits, drilling test holes in late 2010 and through 2011. In a presentation to a state board in 2011, Oregon Energy said it had invested $5 million in the project and expected to operate an open pit mine that would employ up to 150 people.
The Malheur County project, the company said, would yield 30 percent of the country’s uranium production.
John Hasleby, Oregon Energy vice president, explained in a recent email that the company finished its field studies in 2013 and would be in touch with state and federal regulators when it is ready to start mining.
“The Aurora project will be a robust mine at a realistic uranium price,” Hasleby wrote. “The current uranium spot price is substantially below what is necessary for profitable production at Aurora and we are waiting for the uranium market to improve.”