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Stir It Up: Mining Texas aquifers for uranium has risks

george rice

Miner errors? State regulations on uranium mining have a long way to go before they can be considered as protective of people and groundwater supplies in Texas.


Greg Harman
gharman@sacurrent.com

It’s better than open-pit mining, but the "death ore," as the Navajo know it all too well, poses significant challenges when mined even without tearing open wide the earth.

The process of "in-situ mining,” a method of extraction developed a few decades ago in which oxygen-rich water is pumped into uranium-rich formations contained in underground aquifers. It’s been happening at the Kingsville Dome outside Kingsville for 20 years, and soon it may come to Goliad County, as well.

The process essentially stirs the sedentary uranium molecules loose into the water column, where they can be pumped out and separated from the water and other minerals above ground before pumping the remaining water back underground — oftentimes well below the aquifer through deep waste disposal wells.

While several families live around the Uranium Resources, Inc., well field outside Kingsville, so far no radioactive pollution has reached nearby drinking wells, according to noted hydrologist George Rice, an Edwards Aquifer Authority board member addressing a brown-bag lunch at the EAA on Wednesday.

“Contrary to what many of the residents believe, to date there is no evidence that any of these wells have been affected,” said Rice.

That doesn’t mean the practice is safe or well monitored, Rice said during his lunchtime lecture to a crowd of more than 50 packing the room. The lunch event, part of the Edwards Aquifer Philosophical Society’s brown-bag lecture series, typically brings “between 10 to 20” participants an EAA employee on my left tells me.

protester from goliad last yearRepresentatives of CPS Energy, which has invested $276 million in a possible two-plant expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Project, were in the audience, as were a number of locals interested in making sure that expansion never occurs.

Interestingly, when the CPS Board of Directors made their initial $216 million investment for so-called site study and design last year, it was the testimony from South Texas residents (one of which is pictured at left with a small tub of discolored well water) concerned about uranium-mine pollution in their aquifers that gave some CPS employees — apparently immune to nuclear cost or disposal concerns — pause.

And while Rice, who has studied water quality issues around the Kingsville Dome, believes harm has not yet been done at this mine, he said the current regulatory environment is far from protective of people and the environment in the long term.

For starters, not a single in-situ uranium mine in Texas has been required to clean up mine waters to pre-mining levels as state law requires. Instead, one after another they've been exempted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“Clearly the concentration of contaminants are far higher after mining,” he told the audience. “I think there is good reason to be concerned about it in the future … Every time the mining company has gone to the TCEQ and asked them to relax the standards, they say, ‘Okay. We’ll do it.’”

Following the cleanup phase, the groundwater once more begins flowing in the preexisting direction, which in the case of Kingsville Dome is back in the direction of the city of Kingsville’s drinking water pumps.

Not only have TCEQ Commissioners consistently allowed mining companies to opt out of proper cleanups, current regulations only require the then-polluted groundwater plumes to be monitored for a period of six months.

Rice suggested that beneath the Kingsville Dome, where water has been tracked flowing everywhere from a few feet to several hundred feet per year, monitoring guidelines should require companies to keep watch over their polluted remains for at least five years. Any time an “excursion” of polluted water breaks beyond the ring of monitoring wells should add an automatic five years of additional monitoring, he said.

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[For more about in-situ mining in South Texas, see our story Undermining South Texas; For more about those fighting the expansion of uranium mining in Texas, visit the Alliance of Texans for Uranium Research and Action.]


Posted by gharman on 2/5/2009 2:02:10 PM
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