Al Armendariz may have left the building, but that doesn't mean the region's EPA is rolling over for industry or industry's fast friends at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Last week, William Honker, acting director of Region 6's water quality division said that Uranium Energy Corp. has not demonstrated it could safely mine uranium from an aquifer in Goliad County.
While the TCEQ approved the requested “aquifer exemption” required to mine uranium from the Goliad Aquifer a year ago — overruling state Administrative Law Judge Richard Wilfong's suggestion that UEC conduct a pump test to answer unresolved questions about transmission of potentially contaminated water to nearby drinking-water wells — the EPA hasn't gone along for the ride.
“In summary, we continue to believe that the criteria for granting an aquifer exemption have not yet been met,” Honker wrote TCEQ Executive Director Zak Covar in a letter dated May 16, 2012.
Residents of Goliad County have been fighting a proposed in-situ mine that would pump oxygenated water into multiple strata of the Goliad Aquifer, strata that are known to be connected to area drinking water wells, for five years. Uranium tends to bind to other minerals and remain static in the water-bearing sands of an aquifer until it is disturbed — which is the purpose of the oxygenated slurry pumped into the sands during in-situ mining activity, a process that forces the mineral into the water table where it can be pumped above ground and separated out before the wastewater is injected back underground.
“The EPA's examination of TCEQ's aquifer exemption request revealed numerous domestic water supply wells in the proposed mining area, and are currently used for drinking water by local residents,” Honker wrote. Hence, Honker requested a more detailed analysis from UEC. The requested two-part model should not only consider if residents are currently using their wells for water today, but if the water “will be withdrawn in the future.” The timescale recommended for potential future use of the wells is 75 years, according to Honker's letter.
Aquifers mined for uranium in the state — including at Kingsville Dome in Kleberg County, where county commissioners had to sue Uranium Resources Inc. to get the company to agree to restore a contaminated aquifer to its pre-mining condition — are typically left is worse shape than they were before mining, according to reports.
Those of you who have been reading the Current for some years will be familiar with the standoff between Goliad's groundwater district, county commissioners, and coalition of residents. It all started off poorly enough, when UEC punched a hundreds of exploratory holes that were left open to the elements in violation of state regs and resulted in claims of contaminated water wells.
As we wrote in 2007:
Responding to complaints by Goliad County residents and a letter from [Houston-based attorney Jim] Blackburn, the Railroad Commission found that the company had not plugged the majority of its hundreds of boreholes as they had told state regulators.
GPS coordinates supplied by UEC didn’t lead to any holes, either, confusing inspectors. “The holes that were located were found because there was some surface indication of the borehole location, not because they were at the exact coordinates provided,” the inspection report reads.
“Surface indication” turned out to mean piles of radioactive tailings, drilling fluids, and soils left exposed on the open ground. Of the 117 boreholes checked, only 14 had been plugged — and these were either plugged too deep or too close to the surface to protect groundwater supplies.
Gamma-radiation survey results didn’t surprise the RRC’s surface-mining director. Melvin Hodgkiss wrote on May 9 that the discovery of elevated radioactivity “confirms our previous visual observation and determination that drilling mud/cuttings were left on or near the surface at some drill sites.”
About 22 percent of the sites tested were found to be higher in radioactivity than natural background levels. Elevated radiation levels were minimal, Hodgkiss wrote, “relative to the land area disturbed
and not sufficient to pose a radiation exposure hazard.”
It proved an inauspicious start to community relations. Also problematic was the deep orange ooze that clogged one family's water well about the same time as those exploratory holes were punched, an ooze partly collected in a Tupperware jug that became a staple prop of the resistance at many a protest hearing.
For residents who have been fighting the permit, Honker's letter was validation of their concerns.
“It's definitely a David-Goliath kind of fight, because everything the TCEQ does is geared toward getting them a permit,” said Pat Calhoun, president of the Goliad County Farm Bureau. “To put it in cattleman's language, it's like you're running cattle through the chute and when the cattle come out the other end of it they're in single file. It's designed to come out with a permit. To me, that's what their whole purpose is
getting the appropriate checks in the box.”
New EPA-requested modeling, Honker wrote, should demonstrate that the contaminated uranium product will remain in the exempted portion of the aquifer.
Art Dohmann, a retired mechanical engineer and president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District, called the EPA ruling good news but feared it would be received as a feds-versus-state issue by many. “Because of state saber-rattling, people who are not familiar with the issues might look at it as such. But from out perspective it's a very legitimate request and a legitimate concern.”
In a press release, the company suggested the EPA request was simply business as usual.
“In past reviews of aquifer exemptions, the EPA has made requests for additional information as part of its ordinary review process, and, as noted in its letter to the TCEQ, has issued more than 30 aquifer exemptions for in-situ uranium mining in Texas,” a release dated May 21 reads. “The Company will continue to work with the TCEQ and the EPA as the review process moves forward.”
Meanwhile, however, Dohman said UEC has filed an application to mine a 44,000-acre swathe at the southern end of the county, and the groundwater district has kept up its public education campaign to match.
“We've learned a lot from the north activity, so we sent out a form letter to all the landowners that were listed in the [new] application because they don't get notified, just the groundwater district and the county judge does. We will be getting baseline data, because this 44,000 acres, it stretches over — gee whiz — that's a probably a strip 15 miles long. It covers a big area.”
And UEC efforts in nearby Bee County have inspired residents there to request Dohman and others to come speak, as well.
“We find the same situation everywhere we go. People don't even have a basic understanding of this whole process. That's our purpose is to get people to understand that this whole activity is in their drinking water supply. Because they're not being told that by the industry. People may know there's a well going down in the ground, but what's happening in there they have no clue.”
For more background on uranium mining in South Texas, read "Nukes Mean Mines."