After in-situ uranium leaching, ground water cannot be returned to the way it was
Nuclear Regulatory Commission official and uranium mining executive acknowledge restoration of aquifer to baseline is unachievable
Posted September 3, 2008
The Chadron Record
September 2, 2008
NRC takes comments on ISL uranium mining
By GEORGE LEDBETTER, Record Editor
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing in Chadron last week, intended primarily to take public comment on a proposal for use of a generic Environmental Impact Statement in issuing permits for In-Situ Leach (ISL) mines such as the Crow Butte Resources mine near Crawford, provided a primer on the ISL process for an audience of about 35 people, and a discussion forum for several of those involved in challenges to Crow Butte’s proposed expansion project.
Among the details to emerge from the meeting was acknowledgment by the NRC that, although ISL mine permits call for returning groundwater to its original condition when mining is done, some of the “baseline parameters” have proved unachievable by mining companies.
“Some of the parameters they have had a little bit of difficulty returning to baseline have been parameters like uranium and radium, because when they come in and use oxygen and bicarbonate and loosen that uranium up that’s a more difficult parameter to return to baseline,” said Bill von Till, the NRC’s regional licensing branch chief. “They have done a good job of getting that down to a point it’s not mobile, but some of those parameters have not been met.”
Von Till’s comments came in response to questions from the audience about how the NRC monitors the safety of ISL mining, and protects groundwater from contamination by the mining process.
Insuring public safety is a primary goal of the NRC, an independent agency which reports directly to Congress, said Keith McConnell, deputy division director for waste management and environmental protection. “Congress gave us the sole mission of protecting public safety and the environment,” McConnell said. “We don’t have a promotional role in use of radioactive materials. If someone has an interest in using radioactive materials in a commercial frame, we license it to make sure it’s safe, and that’s our sole role.”
Increased interest in extracting uranium through the ISL process, particularly in four regions of the western U.S. prompted the NRC to propose use of a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) as part of its licensing process, the agency officials said. In the Wyoming/South Dakota/Nebraska region alone, a 9,000 square mile area that reaches from the northern Panhandle of Nebraska to the Montana border the agency expects 28 to 30 ISL license applications, McConnell said.
Based on letters of intent from mining companies, the NRC already knows of 14 new permits and eight involving restarts or expansions, said Alan Bjornson, the GEIS project manager.
A different branch of the NRC is already holding hearings on the North Trend expansion of the Crow Butte mine, located about a half mile north of Crawford, and has begun the process of renewal of the license for the existing mine, located several miles southwest of the community.
Protection of groundwater from contamination is one of the objections raised by opponents of the North Trend expansion, including Owe Aku, an Oglala Lakota cultural group, and the Western Nebraska Resources Council. Both groups were represented at last week’s hearing, and raised some of the same issues to the NRC staff.
The process of ISL mining involves injecting a solution of water and bicarbonate into uranium-bearing underground formations, then pumping the water out, removing the dissolved uranium, and repeating the process.
A typical ISL mine has hundreds of wells, but relatively little surface disturbance, Bjornson explained.
Because the process is similar in every location, use of a GEIS will allow NRC staff to focus more on ‘site specific’ conditions for the mines, and avoid duplication of its efforts, Bjornson said. “ISL is relatively standard, no matter where it’s done and typical impact is similar. We want a consistent approach and a focus on the truly unique features of a site.”
Since July, 2007, when the agency began working on the draft GEIS, more than 1,400 comments have been received, said Bjornson. The hearing in Chadron, similar meetings held in Spearfish, S.D., and Newcastle, Wyo. last week, and additional meetings planned in New Mexico, along with follow up sessions in September, are intended to provide more opportunities for public comment, he said. “The document is complete, We are waiting for you, the general public to comment on it.”
The NRC hopes to have the final GEIS done and in use in June, 2009, said Bjornson.
Public comments on the GEIS itself were limited at the Chadron meeting. David Frankel, an attorney for WNRC, asked why the computer ‘cut and paste’ process could not be used to duplicate portions of each mine’s EIS that are similar. NRC branch chief Gregory Suber agreed that the GEIS would essentially incorporate that process.
A comment in favor of the GEIS came from Mike Griffin, who identified himself as a representative of Uranium One, America, and said that his company has two license applications pending in the region. “The license applications are generally six volumes and take one to two years to prepare,” he said. “The GEIS will allow the NRC to concentrate on site specific (issues).”
More of the public comments concerned the general safety of ISL mining, and in particular the impact on groundwater and drinking water supplies. “What are my assurances that my water is not contaminated?” asked Carol Koski.
Several levels of protection guard against contamination of drinking water, according to the NRC staffers. Initially the water to be used in mining must be classified as “not drinking water” by the Environmental Protection Agency, said McConnell.
During mining, a “negative pressure” is maintained in the well field, which keeps the process water from migrating off the mine site, McConnell added. Monitoring wells located on the perimeter of the area are checked constantly for contamination, and the company is responsible for cleaning up any problems, he said. “If there are excursions off site...that is the licensee’s responsibility to resolve.”
The mining company must also post a bond based on the NRC’s estimate of the cost to clean up and restore groundwater, von Till noted in response to a question. “We do a rigorous review The surety is what it will cost a third party to restore baseline conditions,” he said.
But others questioned the monitoring process, which von Till said is conducted by the mining company itself, and reviewed periodically by the NRC.
“Excursions happen,” said Frankel. “The NRC should hire more people and make the companies pay for it. They get the profits and we get generations of pollution.”
Although there have been “excursions” at ISL mines, “we haven’t had a site...where contamination has gotten into a well which people use for human consumption,” said von Till. “None have resulted in effects on human health,”
Mining companies also monitor drinking water wells in the area around a mine, and the NRC has not seen any impact on water supply wells in the area of the Crow Butte mine, according to von Till.
But in response to a question about how restoration of water is accomplished, Griffin said that typically it is not possible to bring water used in mining back to exactly match the 30 parameters that are measured as baseline standards. “That usually isn’t realistically achievable, because of geochemical changes,” said Griffin. A secondary goal then becomes restoring the water to “Class of Use” standards that it met before mining, said Griffin. “Generally that water was not useable before hand. In the state of Wyoming its called industrial use water,” he said.
Failing that, the mining company has to insure that the water won’t escape from the mine site, according to Griffin. “If you can’t achieve those you have to go back to NRC...and show that its not going to migrate off site.” he said.
Von Till confirmed those comments. The primary goal is to return the groundwater to the way it was,” he said. “The ones the NRC has approved....a lot of the parameters were returned to baseline and some of the parameters that were not returned to baseline were returned to Class of Use.”
For more information on submitting comments about the GEIS for ISL mining, contact James Park at 1-800-368-5642, ext. 6935.
A recent example of an ISL uranium mine where aquifer restoration could not bring water quality back to baseline for all parameters, including selenium, uranium, and radium-226:
Thirty-two Texas ISL mines that failed to restore aquifers to baseline for all parameters:
As uranium mines closed, state altered cleanup goals - Dan Kelley
Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials From Uranium Mining - Appendix III. Occupational and Public Risks Associated with In-Situ Leaching
Consideration of Geochemical Issues in Groundwater Restoration at Uranium In-Situ Leach Mining Facilities (NUREG/CR-6870)
New Colorado law that requires ISL mines to "restore all affected ground water to its premining quality for all constituents" or to the most stringent Colorado ground water quality criteria:
Full text of HB-1161 - May 2, 2008