Monday, March 23, 2009

Mining Issues in TX

We continue to get interesting information from Mark Krueger in Texas. Yesterday I got an email that talked about abandoned tailings ponds and abandoned mines. Open pit mining, like that which would be used at Coles Hill has not been used in TX for a number of years...they're now using "in situ" or "leach" mining because the uranium there is much closer to the surface than at Coles Hill. Mark told me this sad story too:

"Open pit mining in Texas hasn’t been used in a long time. When it was used, especially right when the uranium market fell, they abandoned the pits and mounds of radioactive tailings around Karnes County and Live Oak County , as well as some others. Today, those wastelands are still there. You can’t find a blade of grass, a bird, not even a bug around those sites. The federal government is still cleaning up those sites 30 years later. Also, I’ve heard of water collecting in the pits to form what looks like a blue swimming hole. Again, no bugs, no fish, no birds. Anyway, I’ve been in contact with the Health Inspector of Bee County, who told me that his son and some friends had stumbled upon and swam in one of these “beautiful” swimming holes. One of these young people has since died from cancer."

Mark also sent this informational chart to show how many mines had been stopped, plugged, ignored, etc. over the past several years. Texas has a mess. Virginia doesn't want this kind of mess.



The mineral uranium is primarily used by the nuclear power industry to produce energy, although it can also be used to make nuclear weapons. In Texas, uranium has been mined for decades. Uranium used to be strip-mined, much as coal is mined. This mining process results in tailings. These tailing materials are placed in ponds, which often have neither natural or synthetic liners. Some ponds have leaked, contaminating soils and subsurface aquifers, as well as emitting radioactive gases into the atmosphere. There are currently no above ground uranium mining sites in Texas, and all mines have or are undergoing reclamation and clean-up activities. In addition, four tailings and waste sites—where the uranium was milled and extracted from the ore—in Karnes and Live Oak counties are being closed and covered to prevent further contamination of subsurface aquifers or radioactive waste emissions.

During the operation of mill sites, the tailings ponds are used as receptacles for the by-products of the ore process. During closure, the mill site and other facilities are decontaminated and any material is placed in the tailing ponds. The tailing pond is then dewatered and the impoundment is surrounded by a clay cap and radon barrier. Three of the tailing sites—run by Chevron, Exxon, and Conoco—are being supervised by the Texas Department of Health with support from the TCEQ.

The Department of Energy supervised cleanup of a fourth tailing pond in Falls City, Karnes County, an area that produced and processed uranium for the defense industry.
The Department of Energy site has cost about $35 million, 90 percent of which has been covered by the federal government. The tailings pond sites have resulted in groundwater contamination, including one confirmed case at the Chevron facility in 1996.

In 1997 the Texas legislature transferred the jurisdiction to regulate the recovery and processing of uranium and thorium, as well as the disposal of uranium by-products, from the TCEQ to the Texas Department of Health. Since 1975, 38 sites that use injection wells, rather than a strip mining operation, have been permitted to mine uranium (In several instances these permits have been combined, meaning the total number of sites is less). The injection process does not result in tailings. However, only two of these sites—one in Kleberg County and another in Duval County owned by Uranium Resources Inc.—were mining as of November 1997, and none were mining by September of 2003.

Most in situ mining facilities have been closed down and cleaned up and are awaiting a final inspection survey from the Texas Department of Health before being decommissioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while others have never been built and have had their permits canceled. In fact, there are only a handful of permitted uranium mines that could still mine uranium if market conditions allow it in the future.

These in situ or "solution" mines are considered by state agency regulators to present fewer environmental problems than strip-mines because liquids are pumped underground to dislodge uranium, which is then pumped out through wells. Temporary settling ponds that store water, sand and precipitate, and drilling liquids must be lined but do not have to be covered.

However, spills, accidents, and leaks can still occur at such facilities. Waste generated by in situ uranium facilities can be sent to authorized disposal facilities or to tailing sites. Previously, uranium mining operations in Texas were sending their waste to Envirocare of Utah or to one of several tailing impoundments in Utah and Wyoming that are still open to receive by-product waste.



(link to list of closed, abandoned, plugged, etc. TX mines)

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