June 2008
Coastalbend Group -   Lone Star Chapter
Sierra Club South Texas Uranium News
Mark Walsh

 

Guest Commentary

In-Situ Leach Uranium Mining in South Texas

More than 75 people from Kleberg County, Corpus Christi and Goliad attended a Workshop on Uranium Mining, Saturday, May 17, 2008. The workshop was held at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church Parish Hall in Kingsville, Texas. It was co-sponsored by STOP (South Texas Opposes Pollution) and the Coastal Bend Sierra Club. The Workshop was conducted by Dr. Richard Abitz, an environmental expert from Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Abitz is a geochemist who has worked 18 years on environmental problems associated with hazardous and radioactive waste, including remediation of soil and groundwater contaminated with uranium and its decay products and the assessment of human health risk from exposure to toxic carcinogenic substances.

The purpose of the workshop was to educate the residents of South Texas concerning the short term and long term environmental and health issues related to uranium mining operations. The mining company, Uranium Inc. Resources (URI) in Kleberg County, publicize that they are dedicated to the welfare and safety of the communities they operate in and that they will restore the groundwater to its original pre-mining quality. The question is have they lived up to their claim and are they good stewards of the water, air and land where they mine?

Dr. Abitz pointed our some scientific and environmental problems with URI’s uranium mining operation:

First, when an ore zone is located and a monitoring ring established, the entire area needs to be tested in a statistically valid fashion. Before extensive exploration and mining takes place some areas will have drinkable water and some will be slightly higher than drinking water standards. However, once mining begins, the entire area is totally contaminated. The monitoring ring of wells around the production zone is critical to detect the escape of contamination outside the designated protection area. All of these excursions (escapes) need to be reported and addressed to prevent the contamination from spreading to nearby domestic wells. Currently, the method URI uses to report excursions does not account for low levels of contamination that pass by the monitor wells, because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) accepts an invalid method for the reporting of excursions. Another question of safety is this: Who will monitor and pay for excursions once the mining company is finished mining and moves out of the area? Abitz states that uranium levels will increase when restoration is abandoned and groundwater is known to move slowly but steadily towards Kingsville.

Second, to restore the water to its pre-mining quality, accurate baseline measurements must be established prior to extensive exploration drilling. Dr. Abitz stated that when you dig a lot of exploration holes, disturbing the rock formations and injecting a lot of drilling fluids into the aquifer that raises the oxygen level in the water which will begin the release of uranium in the water. Therefore, with some uranium already in the water from the many bore holes, the baseline samples will be elevated and will not represent the true baseline pre-mining quality of the water. He stated, "If you want to know what the pre-mining quality of the water is we need to look at it in an undisturbed setting". Another mistake made by URI and the TCEQ is that they take only one sample per well hole. According to Dr. Abitz, "this is not a scientifically valid procedure." He insisted that at least four samples from each well hole should be taken over a period of one year to comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) federal guidelines.

Third, retired State Senator Carlos Truan, asked a question about restoring the aquifer to its pre-mining condition. "Is it really possible to restore the groundwater to its pre-mining quality?" Dr. Abitz declared firmly from his many years of experience across the United States, "The (mining) operations where I have looked at the data, I have never seen mining companies even come close to pre-mining levels." He further commented that it can’t be accomplished scientifically because only so much of the uranium can be removed and small amounts of oxygen remaining in the water and the rock crevices will continue to release the uranium. Thus restoration will be impossible for decades and decades. (Since 1989 URI has been mining in Kleberg County but according to the Rice Report 2006 and current updates they have not been able to restore the water to its pre-mining conditions nor to the predetermined restoration table in any of the three areas they have mined.)

Dr. Abitz addressed another important question about long term restoration posed by City Councilman, Stanley Laskowski. He asked, "What happens if a mining company certifies to TCEQ that they have met the restoration table but… acknowledge that a certain amount of oxygen remains in the water." Abitz paraphrased his question. "If oxygen remains in the water after the mining company has met the restoration table, what is going to happen (to the water quality)? Will it stay that way? The answer is, no. If there is oxygen in the mining zone and the ore is in an unstable state, it (uranium and other chemicals) will continue to bleed off. And they (URI) will never be able to get all of the uranium out." (An examination of 32 permits from closed South Texas in-situ leach mines showed that in each case, companies were permitted (by TCEQ) to leave behind minerals such as uranium, molybdenum and selenium at higher levels in groundwater than were listed in the original permit. Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Nov. 5, 2006)

Fourth, Dr. Abitz pointed out that while mining uranium, other toxic and cancer causing elements are being released into the water or air, e.g. arsenic, selenium, lead and radon gas.

These elements may be toxic and/or carcinogenic over the long term but the threat from uranium is primarily as a heavy metal toxin. For example, drinking water with elevated amounts of uranium can cause serious kidney damage, especially in young children. Area framer, Gary Underbrink, raised a concern about toxic chemicals getting into the food chain. Abitz commented that exposure to cancer causing chemicals can reach humans through the food chain. Vegetation and crops are contaminated by uranium and other chemicals in the water, animals drink the water and eat the vegetation, and humans eat the products and meat of the animals. TCEQ is doing little or no research on these issues as they relate to human health and safety.

Finally, Kleberg County resident, Josephine Smith asked, since TCEQ is not doing its job to protect the people and the environment, what can be done about it? Dr. Abitz said you have to begin at the local, county and state representative levels requesting that your elected officials complain and take action against the Railroad Commission and TCEQ for not developing and enforcing safety procedures. And, if that doesn’t work, complain to EPA in Washington that your state agencies are not doing their job to protect the people.

In closing, URI claims frequently through newspaper ads and community donations that their company is a good steward of the water, air and land in Kleberg County and a positive contributor to the community. However, while mining uranium, if they are doing long range permanent damage to the aquifer, then they are not a good corporate citizen. Causing serious damage to the underground water, Kleberg County’s most precious natural resource, does not indicate that URI is dedicated to the welfare and safety of this community.

Respectfully submitted by Mark M. Walsh, Treasurer of STOP