Local activists, industry clash over new uranium mining process

Posted: Dec 27, 2011

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Defunct uranium mine

CHURCH ROCK, N.M. -- Navajo activist Larry King looks out at the reddish-brown rock formations, dusty hills and grassy plains here that soon may be dotted with wells and other industrial equipment.

King for years has tried to stop new uranium mining just miles from his home in a small, rural community of about 1,000 people in northwestern New Mexico. A former uranium miner who now belongs to the group Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, King is not convinced that a more modern way of extracting the material will prevent air, land and water pollution.

The newer "in situ leach" or "in situ recovery" method basically sucks uranium out of the ground through wells, eliminating the need for an underground mine or an open pit. While even critics acknowledge that the new technology is more environmentally friendly than older methods, debate rages over its safety and whether it would contaminate groundwater.

"When I first heard the method and understood what the method was, I said no, it's never going to work," King said, standing next to the site of Uranium Resources Inc.'s proposed ISR project.

Even an avowed enemy of uranium mining like Chris Shuey, uranium program director at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, can see some of its benefits.

With conventional mining, for example, companies must build dumps to hold radioactive waste for hundreds of years. The same is not true with in situ recovery, which instead requires numerous injection and monitoring wells.

"It doesn't create the big tailings piles, conventional milling and you don't send miners underground to be exposed to radium," he said. "You're releasing the uranium now not at the surface but in the subsurface."

But Shuey says ISR uranium recovery pollutes groundwater, a problem of particular concern in rural communities like the Navajo Nation where people often rely on wells. "You can't mix experiments in somebody's water supply and expect them to say, 'Oh, that's OK,'" he said.

Companies say state and federal regulations prohibit them from polluting people's drinking water or affecting groundwater that is not already dirty. They must obtain a U.S. EPA "aquifer exception" for the process.

"I'll give you $1,000 if you bring me the in situ site that meets drinking water standards over the last 40 years," said Mark Pelizza, URI's safety and environment senior vice president. "That's a sure bet for me."

How it works

The ISR process usually involves pumping water with oxygen and sodium bicarbonate into underground rock formations containing uranium. Pelizza said the oxygenated water rusts the rock.

"When you rust the rock, you liberate uranium," he said in an interview, adding that it is "much like you bubble air into your fish. It's the exact same thing."

A process then strips the uranium from the water. "From there there's a purification process where the uranium is concentrated, dried, packaged and sold," Pelizza said.

In situ extraction was first tried in Wyoming in the 1960s on an experimental basis, according to the World Nuclear Association, and the first commercial operation began in the mid-70s. Most uranium extraction operations in the United States are now in situ recovery projects.

Dennis Stover, a consultant and former industry executive, says only certain uranium sites lend themselves to the practice. The leaching must occur in an environment with permeable rock, for example.

"Texas and Wyoming in particular," Stover said, "have untapped resources that are definitively going to be amenable to ISR."

Stover notes benefits to corporate bottom lines from the practice. "There's no significant earth moving in this at all," he said. "There's a huge avoidance of capital and construction costs by ISR."

Water concerns

Both Pelizza and Stover say technology can keep the uranium-filled liquid from migrating away from the mining site. By pumping more water out than putting in, workers can keep it contained, they say.

"We reinject anywhere from 98 to 99 percent of that water right back to that same deposit where it came from," Stover said. "It's a closed circulation loop."

But critics disagree with the claims.

"Their premise is that the uranium they would be going after is sealed off from all water and geological formations," said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney with the Energy Minerals Law Center and mining critic. "It basically exploits what is a broad-base lack of knowledge about subsurface ecosystems and geological connections."

Pelizza's rebuttal to that argument comes in the form of a question: "Can anyone anywhere point to a water source outside an in situ leach exempted area in the United States of America that has ever been impacted at all? The answer is no."

Environmentalists also argue that the industry has never demonstrated its ability to return the polluted aquifer to its baseline or pre-mining condition after in situ mining. Industry advocates say cleanup is the most water-intensive part of the process and it may not be practical to return the aquifer to the way it used to be -- especially water they say was never potable to begin with.

"We can restore the water to regulatory standards," Pelizza said. "The regulators determine what is safe. EPA exempts these aquifers because they have been determined to be mineralized."

Determining the baseline water quality is another point of contention. While Pelizza says many aquifers naturally contain uranium, especially out West, environmentalists say previous mining activities may be to blame. If so, they say regulators are allowing companies to further pollute water that should be protected.

"Aquifer exemptions or state equivalents for ISL operations were granted without consideration of the existence of impacts from past uranium mining and milling, whether the groundwater in the aquifer to be mined was potable, and the tribal and community need for groundwater resources," Eric Jantz, a New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney, wrote in a letter to EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council earlier this year.

"As a result, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of gallons of potable water needed by tribes and tribal communities will be forever contaminated," Jantz added. He asked for more research and oversight into in situ uranium extraction.

Regulatory hodgepodge

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates in situ uranium recovery in cooperation with EPA and state agencies. Oversight can vary depending on state agreements with the federal government.

In an October hearing on Capitol Hill, EPA Superfund official James Woolford said the agency in 2010 began reviewing regulations dealing with uranium recovery. It has also asked its Science Advisory Board for advice on ISR and post-closure water monitoring, he said.

At the hearing, NRC's Michael Weber said the agency considered changes to the regulatory scheme but decided against it, instead focusing on working in "close coordination" with EPA.

But mining critics say much depends on how the regulations are implemented.

"It's not enough to have good laws," said Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center. "You need to have good public servants. Sometimes you're going to have to tell industry 'no' to protect the water and the health of the people."

Decades of uranium mining -- first to build nuclear weapons, then to fuel power plants -- have left a dirty legacy on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas (Greenwire, Dec. 13). King does not want any more radiation releases or waste piles in his community. And even though the process is largely thought to be safer, residents and environmentalists remain unconvinced.

"People don't believe them," Shuey said, "and they have every reason not to."


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