Undermining South Texas
Uranium prices are climbing, CPS wants new nukes, and prospectors are scrambling. So why isnít Goliad County happy?
GOLIAD COUNTY– Twenty-six years ago, a man in a Cadillac pulled into Elder Abrameit’s drive. From the porch, the visitor said he had found the rancher through the land office, that he wanted to drill for uranium on his land.
“I told him he was in the wrong business,” said Abrameit. “I said, you need to go out and drill [for oil] and you’ll be paid off in two years.”
The visitor restated his interest in uranium. He said his company was ready to spend $3 million to find it. That got him in the door.
After a long talk in the living room of the modest wood-frame house, Abrameit agreed to lease his mineral rights for $5 an acre. Over time, the deal spoiled. Flat-lined uranium values drove the company off and the incident was forgotten.
Three years ago, however, another knock came. This time, the handshake resulted in a sloppy round of exploration drilling, anger over tainted water wells, and — ultimately — the gathering specter of a full-fledged uranium mining operation in Goliad County.
But in a South Texas rarity, the county hired a lawyer, established a task force to study the issue, and then set to work fighting the company.
Multi-generational relationships such as those the Abrameits have enjoyed for 80-plus years become peripheral victims in such conflicts. Everybody loses when a neighbor has to start trucking in drinking water. Guilt and blame are never far behind.
“The family talked me into it,” Abrameit said during a visit last week. “I didn’t know what I was getting into … I didn’t know I was getting into bad water.”
Ninety miles downriver from San Antonio, the historic town of Goliad receives its share of tourists streaming to the site of Texas’s declaration of independence and the “Goliad Massacre” of 1836. Almost equally as important to its Texian roots is the birth of North-American ranching that occurred here with earlier Spanish settlement. Cows are currency in these parts. Water, life.
Pat Calhoun, a towering former Marine and president of the Goliad County Farm Bureau, observes the roll of the land. After passing a few pleasantries about the weather, the healthy rains, the thrashing, high grasses, Calhoun is ready to talk uranium. He’s irate over Uranium Energy Corp’s pending application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to mine uranium from within the freshwater aquifer beneath us. It’s simply the wrong place to safely mine uranium, he says. Such methods are for “closed” aquifers. The Evangeline, underlying most of Goliad County, recharges here. Fresh water flows through the uranium-bearing water sands UEC plans to mine before entering the greater Gulf Coast aquifer system.
Calhoun talks about the water that will inevitably be lost if the mine goes into production – a minimum of 73,000 tainted gallons shot daily through “disposal wells.” He talks about the state’s pattern of condemning aquifers to allow such mining to take place (“It’s like having a peeing section in the swimming pool”). But his fears aren’t for family and friends, not directly, they are for the cows.
He worries about the beef industry, contamination or no. A relative ranching near one of the state’s only active uranium sites says he won’t eat his own cows anymore. “He’ll sell ’em, but he won’t eat ’em,” Calhoun says. Whether such a reaction is justified or not, the radioactive stigma is this cattleman’s deepest fear when it comes to mining Goliad.
“I don’t want to see irresponsible news reporting – the Katie Courics of the world, the Oprah Winfreys – come out and say South Texas beef is tainted. We can’t have that.”
Two years ago, UEC officials pledged to be a “good neighbor,” he said. So far, anecdotal and physical evidence suggests they won’t meet that pledge.
In May, UEC issued a press release announcing the uranium formation trapped inside the Evangeline looked “favorable” for an in-situ leach mine [See Stir It Up, page 10]. A recovery rate of up to 89 percent is expected if and when they begin extracting radioactive slurries from the groundwater. The announcement helped sell stock, but failed to mention that only a month before nearby residents complained to the local water district that UEC operations were polluting their wells with red, slimy sediment. Water sampling later found that four wells near the hundreds of boreholes puncturing the aquifer were also testing extremely high for radon 222 and radium 226.
Radiation exposure at high and low levels is known to cause a variety of cancers as well as potential chromosomal damage that can cause fatal diseases and birth defects in the unborn.
Uranium mining is “particularly troublesome,” says environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, representing Goliad County, especially when it’s done right inside the aquifer. In agricultural Goliad, he says, a good aquifer is “all they’ve got.”
Responding to complaints by Goliad County residents and a letter from Blackburn, the Railroad Commission found that the company had not plugged the majority of its hundreds of boreholes as they had told state regulators.
GPS coordinates supplied by UEC didn’t lead to any holes, either, confusing inspectors. “The holes that were located were found because there was some surface indication of the borehole location, not because they were at the exact coordinates provided,” the inspection report reads.
“Surface indication” turned out to mean piles of radioactive tailings, drilling fluids, and soils left exposed on the open ground. Of the 117 boreholes checked, only 14 had been plugged – and these were either plugged too deep or too close to the surface to protect groundwater supplies.
Gamma-radiation survey results didn’t surprise the RRC’s surface-mining director. Melvin Hodgkiss wrote on May 9 that the discovery of elevated radioactivity “confirms our previous visual observation and determination that drilling mud/cuttings were left on or near the surface at some drill sites.”
About 22 percent of the sites tested were found to be higher in radioactivity than natural background levels. Elevated radiation levels were minimal, Hodgkiss wrote, “relative to the land area disturbed … and not sufficient to pose a radiation exposure hazard.”
Stories about neighboring Karnes County fuel the Goliad resistance.
A tick upriver toward San Antonio, Karnes County was host to intensive uranium mining from the 1950s to the 1980s and dumps and pits remain across the county.
One story about black cows with a bad habit of turning white sounds like a tall tale until you meet one of many who claim to have seen the bovines. Goliad County Commissioner Jim Krenick, a fifth-generation rancher with cattle grazing both in Karnes and Goliad counties, doesn’t so much as smile when you mention the anomaly. Straightaway he’s telling you about how his Karnes County herd frequently suffers unexplained death. When a 10-year-old bull passed, he asked a local vet to help him investigate. They found a large tumor inside the animal.
It’s no wonder Goliad County Commissioners created a study group to investigate the topic after UEC appeared, and later pledged up to $200,000 to fight the company’s aquifer exemption permit filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Even as Goliad is solidifying its front against UEC, folks in Karnes County are more open to the resurgence of a local industry that once employed hundreds. A uranium price collapse, the combination of higher-quality ore discovered in Australia and Canada and America’s loss of appetite for nuclear power following the infamous Three Mile Island meltdown, seemed cruelly timed with the world oil glut of 1982 that led pumpjacks across the state to freeze in place. It was compounded by the seemingly eternal agricultural woes in this unpredictable land.
“We kind of had a three-way whammy hit us here in Karnes County,” said Trip Ruckman, president of the Karnes County National Bank and San Antonio River Authority board member.
While it’s questionable if Karnes County has anything left to wrest from beneath the ground, Ruckman interrupts the conversation when mining risks are mentioned.
“It’s dirt,” he says. “What they haul out of the ground is rocks and stuff that was already there … It is the processed uranium cake and the mill tailings left behind that have to be taken seriously and controlled.”
Prospectors cropping up in counties across the uranium lands reaching from northeast of Goliad all the way to Starr County on the Rio Grande share such attitudes.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy has taken over most of the milling and processing sites that littered Karnes County when the industry rolled up in the ’80s, and continues spending millions on long-term reclamation operations at sites once run by companies like Exxon, Conoco, and Chevron. The radioactivity beneath these mounds likely won’t dissipate for tens of thousands of years.
A plume of heavy metals and radioactive materials beneath a former Susquehanna-Western Falls City site will be allowed to drift, however, since DOE officials determined that at least one of the three known plumes “cannot be effectively cleaned up for drinking water use” with current “reasonable treatments.”
A stone’s throw to the east, farmers are baling hay across the sloped edges of a waste pit outside Panna Maria that holds 6.8 million tons of radioactive tailings. South Texas Mining Company employees are working a short distance away to reopen a uranium-processing house they hope will soon start churning out a refined “yellow cake” uranium for the first time in decades. The company’s La Palangana mine in Duval County, now in the application-review process with TCEQ, is expected to start trucking as much as a million pounds of ore per year to their Karnes County processing site in 2008.
Yolanda Naranjo’s memories of the uranium mining and processing that swept Karnes County the last time are forever tainted. She remembers her dad, who cowboyed all around the mill sites of Panna Maria and Falls City working for local ranchers. She remembers driving up on weekends to see him, or during the summer, and helping clean his Helena home. As soon as she would finish dusting, a semi hauling uncovered uranium ore would inevitably thunder by, replacing the dust with a yellow powder.
Her father, Domingo Arigullin, was one of about 50 area residents that eventually sued Conoco and a coalition of energy companies over the range of ills they blamed on uranium exposure.
“They can tell you and tell you and tell you they’re being safe and doing all they can, but we’re all human and people run these machines and accidents happen,” Naranjo said. “They’re not going to come over and tell you they did that. They’re not going to tell you they screwed up.”
The companies quickly agreed to a “no-fault” settlement, though her father wouldn’t live to see the money. He passed away from an inoperable tumor lodged in the upper reaches of his sinus cavity in 1999.
Naranjo won’t discuss the settlement amount — a condition of the settlement, she says — she’ll only say it’s not enough, not nearly.
“I’d give it back in a New York second if I knew that Dad could come back to us.”
San Antonio’s city-owned utility, CPS Energy, made international news last week when it joined an application filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build what could be the first new nuclear power plants in the U.S. in almost 30 years.
CPS owns 40 percent of the South Texas Project, a twin nuclear plant in Matagorda County. New Jersey-based NRG Energy, the primary applicant to the NRC, owns 44 percent, and Austin Energy owns 16 percent.
While officials at Austin Energy have not yet committed to a future involving more nuclear, dozens more applications are expected from around the country in the coming months thanks to strong federal incentives.
Non-carbon alternatives lacking obvious corporate champions in Capitol Hill – wind, solar, biomass, co-generation, and breakthrough efficiency technologies – haven’t shared in the enthusiasm the Bush White House has showered on nuclear. Critics argue that without the billions in tax breaks the Bush Administration drove into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and billions more in annual subsidies for existing power plants such enterprises would not be financially possible.
The looming challenge of increasing energy demand and Global Warming, which require vast reductions in global carbon emissions to avoid massive climatic disruptions and, potentially, human extinction, have also inspired many in the environmental community to hop aboard nuclear.
Outside the carbon-heavy fuels mining and processing, plant construction, and decommissioning, nuclear plants contribute virtually no greenhouse gases. That, along with improvements made during the nuclear market’s steady growth in Europe and Asia, have helped soothe domestic reception to this once universally vilified power source.
For resisters, changes in regulatory interpretations will make it harder to fight the coming wave. Submitting to sustained industry pressure, the NRC agreed earlier this year to restrict its oversight of nuke plant construction by excluding excavation, road-building, and some construction elements from consideration. By “narrowing its definition of the word ‘construction’ in agency rules, the NRC put off the required public hearings and permits that have waylaid past projects,” Elliot Blair Smith reported for Bloomberg News last week.
It all serves to vivify the embattled UEC in Goliad County.
While the company did not return messages from the San Antonio Current, it did issue an optimistically worded press release the day after local opponents gained attention for their cause at a press conference. The UEC release heralds CPS and NRG’s landmark application and reminds potential investors that while the United States has 104 operating reactors gargling 55 million pounds of uranium per year, only 4 million pounds are currently mined in the United States.
The release also responded to the company’s detractors. Regarding groundwater concerns, it quotes from a Railroad Commission letter stating the RRC’s investigation “has not revealed any practice or activity at UEC’s Uranium Exploration Permit No. 1234 that is out of compliance with the Texas Uranium Mining Regulations or the Uranium Surface Mining and Reclamation Act.” (Groundwater concerns are under the purview of the TCEQ.)
Its boreholes are also now adequately plugged, it adds, while restating its earlier good-neighbor commitment: “Uranium Energy Corp. has committed to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Goliad County officials and the populace, that it will operate in a transparent manner, and be a good steward of the environment.”
UEC is a penny-trade outgrowth of the booming Canadian uranium market.
The Vancouver-based players originally incorporated in Nevada under the name Carlin Gold, with the intention of mining precious metals. As the uranium market upticked from a historic low of $7 a pound in 2001 to $30 per pound in 2004, the company switched tracks to target the more volatile ore.
While ore values have continued to climb to today’s $80-per-pound selling price, UEC still has no mining reserve and no revenue stream beyond the active selling of stock options. Bad publicity surrounding Goliad and questionable board decisions have been noted at Seeking Alpha, a stock-market opinion and analysis site, but UEC stock recovered from its trip to a dollar-a-share price a year ago to cruise more comfortably in its current four-dollar-a-share lane range.
In Goliad, the mathematics of interest isn’t the aerobic stock-market variety. Instead they are more sedentary figures, like the head of cattle grazing each 100 acres, how many water wells are pumping into stock tanks, and (increasingly) how much water is used to irrigate fields.
At the groundwater district they tell you there are more than 4,000 water wells operating in the county, with more than 100 being drilled each year. So when they read of spills at nearby uranium mines, such as the one outside Kingsville, they know enough to be nervous. Dallas-based Uranium Resources Inc. mined the Kingsville Dome from 1988 through 1999. Last year they reanimated the in-situ operation after the TCEQ overruled the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which had sought an injunction on new operations until the company had cleaned up their pollution at abandoned wells. The numbers involved in URI’s spills are impressive: 3,000 gallons in 1997; 20,000 gallons in 1998; 11,000 in 1999. Company reports indicate these spills were contained on-site, something Kleburg County officials and some local residents dispute.
While URI officials deny they have contaminated the groundwater, they did follow the pattern of such operations across South Texas by requesting less stringent cleanup standards for the water it left behind at closed wells.
Those gathered several miles outside Goliad for last week’s press event settled under stately live oaks. They shook plastic tubs of red water; pointed out the lay of the land, explaining how floodwaters move into the creek, the river, and into the Gulf; and decried the drilling that continues just out of earshot.
These residents are
positioning themselves against a potential tidal surge of uranium
exploration should forecasts for nuclear power in the United States
play out. After years of inactivity, small limited-liability outfits
are starting to punch holes in the South Texas territories again. Eight
active mining permits issued in 2006 doubled to 16 in 2007, according
to the RRC’s
The resistance feels up to the challenge.
“Goliad’s known for fighting and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
That’s the Goliad chamber president talking. Granted, chambers of commerce are not typically venues for dissent. But Goliad, in this case, is far from typical. In many ways, the protesters are an anomaly unto themselves. Most had probably never thought twice about nuclear power, for instance. Had UEC plugged its test wells, if they had reacted proactively when well-water concerns surfaced, if they had lived up to their good-neighbor pledge, many of those gathering in Goliad wouldn’t even know the company was here.
Back at the Abrameits, Elder’s wife Mildred cheerfully offers a guest a cold glass of water, then flees the room. She stays away only as long as she can stand to, drifting through every few minutes with a nervous flourish and candid opinion.
Of course they are heartsick about what they read in the paper that day, she says. They hate thinking that anything they could have done has caused their neighbor of many years to have to truck in water.
The company fixed his fence, Elder says. And it gave him a gate and a gravel road. He even went after a company truck when he saw them break one of his neighbor’s fences. (“They got on it pretty quick,” he says.)
“I feel bad. Or I would if I saw stuff floating in our water,” Elder says.
Mildred returns. “But we’re going to need that uranium, too, for when we need to have a war.”
“We don’t need war,” says Elder, laughing.
“Well, we might.”
She retreats and talk turns to dancing. The Schroeder Dance Hall, said to be the second oldest dance hall in the state, is not far from here. Now 86, Elder only recently quit dancing; Mildred would like to keep going, but he’s too tired.
Only haltingly does talk turn back to the neighbors, the water, and UEC.
Elder reaches out his hand, confiding with a touch his peace on the growing dispute.
“I’d probably be doing the same thing if they were messing my water up.” •
Stir it up: In situ mining method
In theory anyway, in situ leach mining is how your mother would mine. It’s frugal, it’s fast, and it doesn’t tear up the visible creation the way open-pit mines do.
That’s not to say it doesn’t make its own particular mess. After all, intentionally poisoning groundwater comes with consequences.
While open-pit mining pulls huge quantities of rock from the earth to get at the target uranium, in-situ is more delicate on the surface. Typically, a heavily oxygenated chemical solution is injected into and circulated through the ore-bearing deposit where it strips the uranium and other heavy metals from the rock and stirs them into the water table. Then a production well sucks the slurry to the surface, where an extraction plant pulls the uranium from the water. The remaining water is treated to remove some of the other contamination before it is either pumped back into the aquifer as “disposal wells,” poured out into evaporation ponds, or spread across open fields in land applications.
In situ isn’t right for every uranium deposit. It is recommended only where uranium is stored in permeable deposits contained in groundwater that itself is separated from other water bodies by an underlying layer of shale or heavy clay.
The World Nuclear Association estimates that 21 percent of worldwide uranium mining in 2004 was performed using the in-situ leach method.
Space showers and TV dinners
Radiation is life. It is the essential pulsing of everything at an atomic scale. “Non-ionizing” radiation can move but won’t break molecules it connects with. Think radio waves, microwaves, and the heat lamps at your favorite diner. Then there is all visible light and even the natural radioactivity of your own body.
Such exposures are typically harmless, but living under the “non-ionizing” rays of heavy power lines, for instance, may cause certain types of childhood cancers, according to the National Safety Council.
Radiation can also be a malignant, tinkering little devil. So-called “ionizing” radiation can distort molecular bonds creating unpredictable chemical reactions in our bodies. It comes in cosmic space showers, the Sun’s ultraviolet rays, radon gas, and X-rays, among other things.
Such “ionizing” particles are considered unstable, either over-burdened with too much internal energy or too much mass. Such erratic — or “radioactive” — elements have to shed that mass and energy to reach stability. Thus begins the radioactive decay and off-putting of harmful rays or waves. Some elements shed their radioactity in a matter of seconds; others take hundreds of thousands of years to reach stability and no longer pose a risk to human health.
Radioactive materials like uranium, thorium, and radium occur in nature. However, through nuclear-power generation and nuclear-weapons creation and testing, humans have engineered radionuclides that did not exist previously in nature.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, on average, 80 percent of our radiation exposure comes from unavoidable natural sources. The rest comes from exposure to man-made radiation — both in still-drifting A-bomb test waste and supervised medical procedural byproduct. While there is technically no safe dose of radiation, the EPA has set levels intended to help us govern such exposures.
Cancers linked to ionizing-radiation exposure include lung cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and organ tumors. Also, birth defects include kidney and liver damage, spinal defects, Down syndrome, cleft palates, and other malformations.
Recent evidence suggests that radiation exposure may also be weakening the gene pool, increasing non-cancer illnesses and certain hereditary diseases.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
World Nuclear Association
Health (Not Nukes)
Physicians for Social Responsibility
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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