Friday, January 11, 2013

Subject: Virginia Uranium Mining and Milling Impacts

A great letter from our Friend in Utah:

Subject: Virginia Uranium Mining and Milling Impacts

Dear Commonwealth of Virginia Delegate:
Attached please find a letter regarding the impacts of uranium mining
and milling in Virginia should the ban on uranium mining be lifted.

This nformation is based on several years experience with uranium mining and milling, primarily
in Utah, the current center of the conventional uranium milling industry in the US.


Sarah M. Fields
Program Director
Uranium Watch
PO Box 344
Moab, Utah 84532

Uranium Watch

76 South Main Street, # 7 |

P.O. Box 344

Moab, Utah 84532


January 9, 2012

via electronic mail

House of Delegates

Commonwealth of Virginia

General Assembly Building

P.O. Box 406

Richmond, Virginia 23218

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to give you a fuller perspective regarding uranium mining and milling in the

Commonwealth of Virginia—should the ban on uranium mining be removed. These

uranium mining and milling issues have not been adequately presented and discussed by

the Uranium Working Group, their contractor, or in other reports and discussions related

to the lifting of the moratorium on uranium mining. As a public interest non-profit,

Uranium Watch (UW) has been involved in the oversight of uranium mines and mills for

over 6 years, and its Program Director for over 15 years. Much of UW’s experience has

been with the White Mesa Uranium Mill and the mines that provide ore to the mill in

southeast Utah. Energy Fuels Inc. recently acquired the Denison Mines (USA) Corp. mill

and mines in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona through a sale and merger process.
1 In

December 2012 Energy Fuels Inc. announced its intent to obtain a 19.9 % share in

Virginia Energy Resources, Inc.


• There are intractable technical issues related to uranium mining and milling in

Virginia that have not been adequately characterized and addressed. These

issues arise due to the wet environment (precipitation greatly exceeds

evaporation); the uranium mines and mills in the West are in an environment

where evaporation exceeds precipitation.



• Uranium mines and mills have separate regulatory programs. Mines and mills

are not, and would not be, licensed and regulated as a single operation.

• Uranium mines in Virginia would require large impoundments for the storage

and treatment of mine water prior to discharge offsite.

• The discharge of treated mine water would result in the deposition of uranium,

radium and non-radioactive toxic contaminants into surface water.

• Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation allows for discharge of mill

tailings effluent in areas where precipitation exceeds evaporation, without

requiring the removal of hazardous processing fluids, such as sulfuric acid and

4 The discharge standard only applies to the minerals zinc, uranium,

and radium.

• Mill operators would not be able to place mill tailings back into an open-pit


• The EPA has a standard for the emission of radon from underground uranium

mines, but does not have a standard for the emission of radon from open-pit

uranium mines.

• Any lined tailings impoundment would eventually leak. In an area with a high

water table, this effluent would migrate into ground and surface waters.

• The EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations for the

reclamation of tailings impoundments are based on the assumption that the

tailings will dry out, to enable the placement of a final radon barrier and to

remove the source of future leakage.
6 The tailings closure plan, or reclamation

plan, includes dewatering or the removal of freestanding liquids.

• There is no information explaining how a tailings impoundment in Virginia

would dry out and be kept dry over thousands of years, so that there will be no

need for long-term monitoring and maintenance.

Virginia House of Delegates 2

January 9, 2012


40 C.F.R. § 400.34(a).


40 C.F.R. § 400.34(b)(2).


40 C.F.R. Part 61.


40 C.F.R. Part 192, Subpart D.

10 C.F.R. Part 40, Appendix A.


40 C.F.R. § 192.31(n).

• Tailings impoundments are not designed to withstand high winds and/or intense

rainfall associated with hurricanes and tornadoes. Such events would disperse

contaminated water and radioactive and hazardous materials throughout the


• Once groundwater becomes contaminated with uranium, uranium progeny, and

tailings effluents, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to fully remediate.

• Mill tailings and mine waste rock will remain forever as continual sources of

emissions of radioactive and hazardous contaminants into air and water.

• Even the best regulatory programs cannot alter these technical and

environmental realities.

• Lifting the ban on uranium mining will mean that the government and citizens

of Virginia will have to deal with the wastes and contaminants from uranium

mining and milling in perpetuity.


UW has been troubled by the misinformation in the Wright Environmental Services

report, particularly the creation of confusion between the regulation of uranium mining

and uranium milling.

Although the ban on uranium mining in the Virginia focuses on the uranium mining

aspect, the greatest environmental hazards could come from the processing of the

uranium ore at a uranium mill. At Coles Hill, this mill would be near the underground

and/or open pit mine. Uranium mills are regulated by the NRC under the Atomic Energy

Act. Uranium mines do not fall under NRC regulation. Although milling removes about

90% of the uranium, the decay products are retained in the tailings, comprising some

85% of the original radioactivity. The tailings (
containing radioactive decay products,

heavy metals

, toxic minerals, and processing chemicals) would be disposed of in lined

tailings impoundments, or cells. There has been some talk of placing those tailings back

into an open pit mine at Coles Hill. It is unlikely that this would be allowed under

current EPA regulations for the disposal and long-term care of uranium mill tailings (40

C.F.R. Part 192), since the tailings must be deposited into engineered, lined

impoundments no larger than 40 acres (unless the tailings have been de-watered prior to

deposition), and it would be prohibitively expensive and hazardous to move the tailings

from one engineered disposal impoundment to another.

During mill operation, the tailings cells must be kept wet on top to minimize the release

of radon gas. Most uranium tailing impoundments are in the southwest, where the

amount of evaporation greatly exceeds the amount of precipitation. In Virginia, during

operation the tailings would be subject to extreme weather events (including hurricanes),

which can produce high winds and large amounts of rain in a short period, plus the

Virginia House of Delegates 3

January 9, 2012

prospect of tornadoes. Very high winds would disperse the tailings and highly toxic

tailings fluids into the surrounding area. A mill would have to be able to contain the

overflow from tailings and tailings fluid impoundments. The failure of engineered ponds

to contain the tailings and tailings fluids would cause migration of contaminants into the

soil and ground and surface water. Tailings cells and evaporation ponds are not designed

for protection from tornadoes and hurricanes. Extreme weather events would also

disperse radioactive and hazardous materials from the ore storage area and other mill


Once the tailings effluents enter the groundwater, it is extremely difficult and expensive

to remove them. Contaminated groundwater flows into surface water. In New Mexico

there is an ongoing project to reduce and contain a plume of contamination at the

Homestake Mill (also a Superfund site), which was first identified in the 1970s.
8 9

Uranium ore contains elevated concentrations of heavy metals and trace elements, so

both radioactive and hazardous constituents must be removed. The minerals (including

uranium) create the potential for chemical toxicity from surface water and groundwater

contamination. In an area with a high water table, radioactive and toxic elements would

spread rapidly.

Another problem would be the possible planned discharge of tailings liquids into a local

water course. Under EPA regulations (40 C.F.R. § 440.34(b)(2)), in an area where the

precipitation rate exceeds the evaporation rate, the mill can discharge tailings fluids

offsite. The effluent limitations on the discharged tailings liquids are the same as the

limitations for discharged uranium mine waters. The effluent limitations apply to the

elements uranium, radium, and zinc, but do not limit other metal and metalloids (such as

arsenic) or the many processing chemicals (such as kerosene and sulfuric acid). This

means that toxic processing fluids could be discharged into the waters of Virginia during

the mill operation.

During reclamation tailings cells must dry out to remove free standing liquids and settle

the impoundment to facilitate the placement of layers of soil and rock as a cover and final

radon barrier. The purpose of the final radon barrier is to keep radon in and future

precipitation out. Considering the amount of precipitation in Virginia, it is unlikely that

the tailings impoundment would be able to dry sufficiently to allow for the placement of a

final radon barrier. It is unlikely that a barrier could be engineered to prevent

precipitation from eroding the tailings impoundment and to prevent water from entering

the tailings over many thousands of years. Eventually the liners will break down, so any

free liquids could leach the unwanted tailings constituents into the surrounding

groundwater. This may happen in ten years, or one hundred; but, it will happen

Virginia House of Delegates 4

January 9, 2012




eventually. That means that the tailings impoundments and surrounding groundwater

would have to be monitored in perpetuity. It was the intent of the Atomic Energy Act that

remediated mill sites would not require active long-term care and maintenance.

The final radon barrier must be engineered to provide “reasonable assurance of control of

radiological hazards to (i) be effective for 1,000 years, to the extent reasonably

achievable, and, in any case, for at least 200 years.”
10 What happens when the the

radiological hazards can no longer be controlled? What happens when the radon barrier

begins to erode? What happens when effluents start to leak into the groundwater?

Uranium mining in Virginia would require constant active de-watering of the mines,

whether underground or open pit. That means the storage, treatment, and discharge of

thousands of gallons of mine water containing low levels of uranium and radium and

other contaminants that are not subject to effluent limitations.
11 The storage ponds would

be large and would have to be engineered to hold water from high precipitation events

and be protected from high winds and tornadoes. A tornado or hurricane could rip apart a

pond full of untreated mine water. The question is whether safe systems are technically

possible. The failure of the ponds and tailings impoundments to contain the mill and

mine effluents would be devastating.

Another factor in the life cycle of a uranium mine or mill is the possibility for the mill to

be placed on standby for long periods of time, due to fluctuations in the price of uranium.

In Utah, the Shootaring Canyon Uranium Mill has been on standby for 30 years.

Energy Fuels recently announced that 3 of their permitted Utah uranium mines would be

in non-operational status by the end of 2012,
13 adding to 4 non-operational mines in Utah

and several in Colorado. Some of the permitted Energy Fuels mines had been nonoperational

for 10 to 20 years. During non-operation no reclamation work was done and

hazardous conditions existed at the essentially unregulated mine sites.

Most of the reports about uranium mining in Virginia have conveniently avoided the

practical engineering challenges associated with uranium mining and milling in an

extremely wet environment—with the potential for extreme weather events. All the

regulations in the world will not solve these problems. The contamination of

groundwater and surface water from uranium mining milling effluents in Virginia is

inevitable. Drinking water sources, vegetation and wildlife in riparian areas, recreation

areas, streams and rivers, agriculture production, domestic livestock production, human

health and well being would be shattered.

Virginia House of Delegates 5

January 9, 2012


20 C.F.R. Part 40, Appendix A, Criterion 6(1).


40 C.F.R. § 440.34.



The a history of uranium milling is a history of industry and regulatory agencies ignoring

contamination of groundwater until after the fact, then scrambling to remediate ground

water and surface water contamination, with minimal success. The story is of a few

receiving economic benefits and the community and the environment bearing the burdens

of the adverse health and environmental impacts. The costs to the taxpayers to address

these health and environmental impacts from uranium mining and milling is in the

billions of dollars.

Please take this information into consideration when deciding whether to lift the

moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.


Sarah M. Fields

Virginia House of Delegates 6

January 9, 2012