Uranium Mining in Texas
There are three methods of mining for uranium – underground mining, surface strip mining, and in situ mining.
Key features of the IN SITU uranium mining process happening now in South Texas:
1. Mining companies inject an oxygenated chemical solution into the ground through a well in the center of an array of surrounding production wells.
2. The mining activity requires some 7.2 million gallons of re-circulating water per field to drive the toxic chemicals through the aquifer to the surface via the production wells.
3. The solution leaches and mobilizes uranium and other toxic heavy metals that were formerly stable in the rock.
4. The solution is taken to a processing facility either on-site or off-site to produce ‘YELLOW CAKE’.
5. Waste from the process is mobilized in the aquifer, spilled on the ground near the wells, and stored in uncontained holding ponds which filter into the ground.
6. The yellow-cake product is transported across state lines or exported to other countries to an ‘enrichment’ plant where it is made into fuel material for nuclear power plants.
In South Texas uranium mining companies are increasing both exploratory and mining activities as a result of increased or potential demand for uranium after a relatively slow period of uranium production over the past three decades. This increased activity poses significant threats to water supplies and human health.
See the Texas Rail Road Commission's list of pending and active EXPLORATION permits in Texas; and, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's list of closed, active, and pending MINING permits in Texas. Or! Check out ALTURA's OWN INTERACTIVE MAP of active, closed, and pending uranium mines in Texas.
In situ leech (ISL) uranium mining activities are taking place in one county in the Panhandle region of Texas -- Briscoe County and predominantly in the Coastal Bend region of Texas in the following counties: Atascosa, Bee, Brooks, Duval, Goliad, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Karnes, Kleberg, Live Oak, McMullen, Nueces, Starr, and Zavala.
Art Dohmann Chair of Goliad County's Uranium Research Advisory Committee and a Board Member of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District describes the situation in Goliad County where a new company Uranium Energy Corporation has explored and wants to mine. Watch the video.
History of Uranium Mining in Texas
Corporations began mining uranium in Texas in the mid-1950's. The industry's early history of unregulated open pit mining resulted in companies dumping tons of radioactive and heavy metal waste in towns south and southeast of San Antonio -- most notably, at the Conoco/Conquista site in Karnes County, at the Chevron site in Panna Maria, also in Karnes County, and at Exxon's Ray Point site in Live Oak, County. (Source: 71st Texas State Legislature Report on Regulation of Uranium Mill Tailings and Waste...). In one lawsuit with plaintiffs numbering over 1,000 and another suit with approximately 600 plaintiffs, workers and their family members and citizens in the areas of the mining alleged personal injury and property damage.
Live Oak County farmer/rancher Jeff Sibley's family lived through this early history. He wrote an account, 'Uranium Mining in Texas', drawing from his own experiences and from his research of Texas State agency records.
National and Global political context
New uranium mining activity became virtually nonexistent in the United States as the nuclear industry stalled in the 1980s and 1990s due to cost overruns, catastrophic accidents, and an oversupply of electricity generation. Meanwhile, the disarmament of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union led to an oversupply of uranium on the market. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed no new reactors during the past 29 years.
New developments, however, are spurring uranium mining activity. Legislation passed by the U. S. Congress in 2005 and 2007 would heavily subsidize new nuclear reactors. Whether or not these reactors will ever be built, the potential operation of more nuclear reactors – as well as continuing demand from existing reactors – has inflated the price of uranium on world markets as the oversupply of uranium from disarmament runs out. The allure of big profits for major corporations has jump-started the new uranium activity in South Texas.
Present Situation in Texas
The history of uranium mining in South Texas indicates that Texans should be leery of new uranium activity. New mining operations are being pursued even though aquifers contaminated by earlier mining operations have not been restored. The new Report on Findings Related to the Restoration of Groundwater at In- Situ Uranium Mines in South Texas"documents that failure.
Despite the history of contamination, the RailRoad Commission of Texas lists nineteen exploration permits active at present in Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) presently lists at least eight pending and active uranium mining permits. These permits - if you have the permit numbers, can be found on TCEQ's searchable database. The agency is considering at present making these permits available in a more user-friendly table and staff are working on a map showing all uranium mining sites -- historic and current in Texas.
New uranium exploration and mining threatens additional water contamination and potential human health impacts when Texans cannot afford to ruin local water supplies. This is why the flurry of uranium mining corporate activity is being matched by strong citizen opposition in Goliad, Kleberg, and Nueces Counties. Still, a number of mines are presently operating even as companies seek to expand production in those areas.
After Uranium Resources Inc. (URI) mined in their area, citizens of Ricardo in Kleberg County received a letter in October, 2004 from the EPA Region VI in Dallas stating that their drinking water showed uranium from five to eight times above EPA’s current uranium standard. The letter advised the residents to “consult their family doctor…and not use these two wells for drinking water.” About two years later, Dr. George Rice, hydrologist concluded in a
study for the Kleberg County Citizen Review Board that URI failed to restore water quality after uranium mining.
In 2005 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) gave URI a permit to mine again in three authorized production areas – one of which the community group STOP, South Texas Opposes Pollution contested. URI has recently submitted an application to amend one of those production area authorizations, a change that local landowners and families again are contesting. Kleberg County also has current legal issues with URI.
URI also has two active permits in Duval County, at Rosita and Vazquez near Hebbronville. The company recently submitted an application to lower the quality to which it must restore the water at one of its production areas at the Vazquez mine. In Rosita, URI is seeking to double the size of the mine.
Cogema, another company, is currently closing their two mines, known as El Mesquite and Holiday in Duval County, while Mesteña runs a uranium mine in Brooks County which is known as Alta Mesa.
Finally, two new companies – Uranium Energy Corporation (UEC) in Goliad County – and South Texas Mining Ventures in Duval County have submitted applications to open completely new uranium mines.
When landowners’ well water became undrinkable in Goliad County following exploration by UEC last year, the Uranium Research and Advisory Committee of Goliad County concluded -- “in our judgement, in situ leach mining cannot be done safely in Goliad County.”
Goliad County has filed a lawsuit against UEC in federal court due to alleged violations of the Safe Drinking Water ACt during the company’s exploration activities. The County, the Ground Water Conservation District, the Farm Bureau, ranchers and other landowners in the community group Uranium Information at Goliad are united in seeking a contested case hearing to present evidence to the State TCEQ that the mine should not be opened.
Over 500 people attended a meeting organized by the TCEQ in Goliad on January 24, 2008, and voiced their opposition to the activity in their region. Art Dohmann, in charge of testing wells for the Goliad County Groundwater Conservatin District summed up citizens’ concerns, “Groundwater is the lifeblood for Goliad County. It is vital that we protect it.”