For years Teo and his neighbors have tried to get Uranium Resources Inc. to clean up the heavy metals and radioactive materials created during the their mining operation as required by their Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) permit, to no avail. Now the company is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, ceasing operations, and leaving Texas taxpayers with a massive pollution clean-up job.
What is In-Situ Uranium Mining?
In South Texas, uranium is found in the rock lining fresh water aquifers that provide water for drinking and irrigation. During in-situ uranium mining, hundreds of wells are drilled into the aquifer to inject a bicarbonate/oxygen solution to separate uranium from the ore. The mining solution frees the uranium and other metals such as arsenic, molybdenum, and selenium from the aquifer rock. In addition, Radium-226, a significantly more radioactive element than uranium, is also freed in this process.
The mining solution which now contains uranium and many undesired other byproducts such as arsenic is then pumped to the surface, where the uranium is chemically stripped out at an extraction facility. The contaminated water, minus the uranium, is then recombined with bicarbonate/oxygen and pumped back into the aquifer. When mining in an area is done, the company is required to clean the remaining hazardous and radioactive contaminants out of the aquifer. At many mine sites, state agencies have not ensured proper clean-up, and in some cases - any clean-up at all.
Spills of highly radioactive water containing the leached-out uranium, other toxic materials and uranium-heavy process fluids are common in the in-situ uranium mining process. Hundreds, if not thousands of spills have occurred at the Texas mines, documented in part by thousands of pages of self-reporting sent to the TNRCC by the mining companies.(1) In the recent 5-month period from January to May 1999 at the URI mine, at least three spills totaling 15,000 gallons of uranium-contaminated water have occurred. (2)
Heath Risks of Uranium Mining
Uranium-238 poses little health hazard as long as it remains outside the body. If inhaled or ingested, however, its radioactivity poses increased risks of lung and bone cancer. Uranium is also chemically toxic at high concentrations and can cause damage to internal organs, notably the kidneys. Animal studies suggest that uranium may also affect reproduction, the development of the fetus, and can increase the risk of leukemia and other soft tissue cancers. (3)
Radon Releases from Uranium Mining in Texas
In 1982, the Texas Department of Health studied the radium and radon concentrations at four typical South Texas in-situ uranium mines. The study concluded that large amounts of radon, (Rn-222), is released by both conventional and in-situ mines. (4) Both Radium and Rn-222 are potent human carcinogens. (5) At the George West facilities in South Texas, between 1977 and 1986, studies estimate that approximately 40,000 curies of radon were released into the environment. (6) The EPA takes action to reduce radon levels in schools when radon levels measure 4 pico curies per liter, which is one trillionth of a curie.
Fighting for their Land
In 1997, Uranium Resources announced their intention to open a new production area, named Area 3. Kleberg County officials and a landowners group called South Texas Opposes Pollution (STOP), filed a request with the TNRCC to hold a contested case hearing. County officials and local citizens were opposed to the fact that the TNRCC was authorizing a new mining area before the previous mining areas had been restored. URI's TNRCC permits stated that URI had to restore at least one of its two mining areas before opening a third. The County knew that URI was in a tight financial condition and did not have adequate bonds for clean up and well plugging. The surrounding landowners believed that URI was simply trying to avoid the cost of clean up while it pocketed its profits from the mining.
TNRCC Opposes Citizens Rights
Even though TNRCC staff had sent out a letter to the nearby landowners notifying them that they had a legal right to a hearing on the new permit for Area 3, the TNRCC Commissioners, appointed by Governor George Bush, did not want the public slowing down the uranium mining. On January 21, 1998, the TNRCC Commissioners denied the County's request for a hearing, contradicting their own staff by claiming that, although it was obviously a directly affected party, the County had no legal right to a hearing. The TNRCC then issued an order allowing URI to begin drilling in production area 3 and URI began mining.
Winning the Battle -- Losing the Aquifer?
Over two years after the TNRCC allowed Area 3 mining to begin, Kleburg County and Teo Saenz and his neighbors won the legal battle for the right to a contested case hearing to decide whether the permit should have ever been approved. The Travis County District Court ruled on February 29, 2000 that the TNRCC must grant a hearing on URI's plan to open a new uranium mining area. This ruling marks the sixth time in the last several years that a court has had to step in to protect citizens rights to participate in permit decisions implemented by the Bush-appointed TNRCC Commissioners.
But the damage had already been done. After mining as much uranium as it could from Area 3, URI stopped mining months ago. In a March 31, 2000 press release, URI admits, "the company has exhausted all of its available sources of cash to support continuing operations and will be unable to continue in business beyond June 2000 unless it can secure a cash infusion."
Now, as the neighbors feared, Uranium Resources Inc. is on the verge bankruptcy. Teo Saenz is worried that the land and water near him will never be adequately cleaned up. "My inheritance was land, and we're giving them polluted water and soil," he says. "That's not a very good inheritance for our kids".
Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.
- TNRCC Reports
- URI reports to TNRCC and TDH reveal
- a 2/23/99 spill caused by a faulty check valve on well 5704B. Approximately 2,000 gallons of extraction water with a concentration of 9 PPM uranium spilled on the ground,
- an 11/2/99 spill caused by a cracked joint in a line from the RIX in Production Area. Approximately 1,000 gallons of bleed water with a concentration of 1.5 PPM uranium spilled onto the ground, and
- a 1/25/99 spill caused by a broken meter for well 6168A. Approximately 12,000 gallons of extraction water with a concentration of 1.5 PPM uranium spilled onto the ground.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR Public Health Statement: Uranium, Atlanta: ATSDR, December 1990.
- Marple, ML and TW Dziuk, "Radon Source Terms at In Situ Uranium Extraction Facilities in Texas" in Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Uranium Seminar, American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, Inc., New York, 1982.
- Radium and radon are potent human carcinogens. Radium, via oral exposure, is known to cause lung, bone, brain, and nasal passage tumors. Radon, via inhalation exposure, causes lung cancer. Chronic exposure to radon in humans and animals via inhalation has resulted in respiratory effects (chronic lung disease, pneumonia, fibrosis of the lung), while animal studies have reported effects on the blood and a decrease in body weights. Limited evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that uranium or radon exposure may result in a decreased ratio of live male to female births in humans. (Sources: US Environmental Protection Agency, "Health Data from,":http://www.epa.gov/ttnuatw1/hlthef/radionuc.html Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Uranium (Draft). U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Altanta, GA. 1989, 1990.)
- Specific calculations done by Resnikoff, based on Marple and Dziuk methods for measurement. "Radiation Exposures Due to Mining, Milling, and waste Disposal Operations in South Texas" Marilynn de la Merced, M.S., Ian Fairlie, Ph.D., and Marvin Resnikoff, Ph.D. November 199, p. 36-38.)