Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Powertech showdown: critics point to loose regulation and contamination at mines across America

September 23, 2013 6:30 am  • 
An "in situ" uranium mine isn't the open-pit mine that your grandparents may remember: backers say it is clean, safe, virtually hidden from view, and does not scar the earth.

For seven years that has been the promise of Powertech, a Canadian company that is proposing to build South Dakota's first in situ leach uranium mine — a $51 million project that would draw uranium from beneath the surface of the land near Edgemont.

But as the company reaches a critical stage in its permitting process, that promise has come under increasing fire from critics in South Dakota worried about the project's possible environmental impact. The result has been a tense back and forth this year between Powertech and its opponents, with each side accusing the other of spinning the truth and manipulating the facts.

To separate fact from fiction, the Journal spent the past month investigating the claims of both Powertech and project critics. The Journal interviewed more than a dozen sources, from hydrologists to regulators, from environmental lawyers to industry spokespeople, and reviewed scores of academic reports, newspaper clippings, and state records on the environmental impacts of ISL uranium mines.

The newspaper's findings include:
• While no mining venture can prevent all risk, some in situ mines have had a dubious track record of regulatory compliance; from a mine in Texas that exposed workers in the 1980s to dangerously high levels of radiation, to a mine in Wyoming in 2008 that earned a $1.4 million fine from the state for failing to restore contaminated groundwater as promised.
• There is consensus among federal regulators that, despite the promises of mining companies, groundwater at a mining site cannot be restored to its pre-mining condition. In every instance, regulators have had to relax restoration standards because escalated concentrations of certain chemicals, like uranium and arsenic, could not be reduced.
• There is relatively little research on the movement of chemicals, like uranium, in groundwater once mining is finished. An analysis of groundwater samples by a hydrologist in Texas this year shows the first potential evidence of uranium flowing into a livestock well from a nearby mine. The state of Texas disputes those findings.
• The regulation of in situ mining varies from state to state, but South Dakota could be particularly vulnerable to environmental risks due to a weakening of regulations and the state's abandonment of its rights to regulate mine operations.

But critics, including an array of environmental groups and area residents, say those short-term benefits aren't worth the long-term risks.

Beginning today at the Best Western Ramkota hotel in Rapid City, dozens of attorneys, activists, and area residents will offer public testimony against Powertech's proposed mine. The hearing, held by the State Board of Minerals and Environment, is expected to last all week.

For those testifying, like Bruce Ellison, an attorney for the Clean Water Alliance, it's a showdown that he believes every South Dakotan should be watching closely.

"Hopefully we are going to show there's too many unanswered questions," he said. "Why should we put our water at risk?"

Past in situ problems
South Dakotans don't have to look far to see how in situ mines have operated in other communities.
While uranium mining is a niche industry, in situ mines are largely clustered around the uranium-rich lands of Wyoming. South Dakota's western neighbor hosts three of the six in situ sites currently operating in the U.S.
For in situ critics like Shannon Anderson, an organizer based in Sheridan, Wyo. for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming's experience demonstrates the problems with in situ mining.
"I think it's important that if you're getting into this industry you know the history of what's happened in other states," she said.

Among the biggest issues, Anderson says, is the incident that led to a $1.4 million settlement the state reached with one mining company in 2008 over frequent violations.

At the Smith Ranch-Highland site, in Eastern Wyoming, the state found an "inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases." The state also found that the company, Power Resources, was significantly under-budgeting for reclamation and that it was shirking its promises to restore contaminated groundwater.

At that mine and others in Wyoming, Anderson is particularly concerned about violations relating to what the industry calls "excursions." An excursion is an early warning signal that chemicals pumped into the ground, or loosened by the pumping process, are beginning to drift through groundwater away from the site. When excursions are detected, in situ operations are supposed to adjust pumping methods so chemicals are drawn back.

An excursion itself does not imply that chemicals have migrated outside of the site, but critics fear that when excursions are detected, companies do not always adequately contain those chemicals, and that they have the potential to contaminate surrounding water supplies.

In 2010, a state geologist studied a long-running excursion at the Willow Creek site in Eastern Wyoming. The geologist found uranium levels were more than 70 times the maximum contamination level at the edge of the company's permit boundaries, as later reported by ProPublica, a non-profit news service.

Anderson said those types of problems suggest an industry that either has a blasé attitude toward regulations, or an inability to safely conduct operations.

"I know there are inspection and compliance problems for most of the industry," she said.
But state regulators and the industry dispute that assertion.

Anderson responded that both Nuttbrock and Loomis are not entirely accurate in their assessments.
She also said it wasn't fair to suggest there haven't been issues relating to restoration; she said the $1.4 million settlement against the Smith Ranch-Highland was closely related to the company's lax restoration efforts.

"There was definitely a component of the company putting an emphasis on mining rather than restoration," she said. "And restoration was taking years long than anticipated, which we have seen at all of these mines."

Anderson was also skeptical that the $1.4 million fine had necessarily sent a message to the industry. She said Smith Ranch-Highland had continued to rack up violations after the fine.

According to state records, Wyoming has fined Power Resources a total of $88,000 since September 2008. The issues ranged from improperly capping drilling holes to failing to perform groundwater tests.

Asked how Powertech would avoid issues that happened at other in situ sites, Hollenbeck released a detailed response to the Journal describing the safety features at its proposed mine.
"So it's not so much you can have a perfect system that doesn't ever have an issue, it's how you handle issues," he said. "And if you have leaks, how you mitigate those."

Can water be restored?

"This is something that has been developed over tens of thousands of years," he said. "You can't go and disturb that chemical environment and expect that to return to its initial state in a few decades."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency which plays a leading role in regulation of most in situ sites in the U.S., acknowledges that full restoration is not possible.

In a 2009 report, NRC staff reported that mines appear unable to reduce escalated levels of certain chemicals in groundwater, particularly iron, manganese, arsenic, selenium, uranium, vanadium, and radium-226. Escalated levels of those elements are generally unsafe for human consumption.

Eric Jantz, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said another problem with in situ restoration is that data on the water's pre-mine condition is usually distorted to begin with.
Jantz said while there is contaminated water on the site, the company's own data showed that there were portions that were drinkable. "Once the uranium mining begins, that water is going to be destroyed," he said.

Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist and geo-chemist, believes that Powertech's proposed site hosts better water than the company has presented in its reports to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Moran has examined the company's permitting material on behalf of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which sits 20 miles from the site and is staunchly opposed to its operation.

Powertech says that its data shows the groundwater in the proposed site is unusable. As one metric, the company points to radon levels that range up to 1,540 times the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for drinking water.

But in detailed testimony to NRC, Moran said while the area has been contaminated by open-pit mining and past exploration of uranium in the 1950s, there are still surface and ground areas that are uncontaminated or relatively uncontaminated.

"Experience at similar sedimentary uranium sites indicates that significant quantities of uncontaminated ground water likely exist, and could be used for other livestock, agricultural, domestic, etc, uses," he wrote.

He charged that NRC had failed to make Powertech provide "statistically adequate, reliable, pre-operational baseline data" on the site's groundwater.

Powertech defended that all the groundwater information it has supplied to regulators is in step with requirements by the NRC.
Can it migrate?

Opponents of Powertech's proposal maintain that all prior evidence from in situ mines suggests that concentrations of chemicals like uranium in water will escalate.

There biggest fear is not simply that those contaminants will remain in the groundwater after mining has finished, but where they will flow after that.

For mining companies and industry regulators, that concern is easily dismissed.

But environmental watchdogs contend that those conclusions are based on a lack of data.

Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that another of the flaws in federal in situ regulation is a lack of long-term monitoring.

If the companies and regulators don't continue extensive sampling at a decommissioned site, he and other environmental activists argue, no one else can.

"We don't have the resources as a federal agency does to go mine by mine and see the spread of contaminants – if any," he said.

George Rice, a private hydrologist based in San Antonio, Texas, has found escalated concentrations of uranium at a livestock well about 1,000 feet away from the Kingsville Dome mine in Texas. The mine began production in 1988 but is currently inactive.

Rice said that while the uranium concentrations at the livestock well he analysed have always been unsafe for humans, the concentrations have tripled since the mine began operating in the area.
Now, Rice said, the well water is unsafe for livestock too.

Rice has submitted his findings to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the operator of the Kingsville Dome mine, Uranium Resources, for review.

"This is the first case that I'm aware of that contaminants from an in situ mine have moved from a property and effected a domestic well," he said.

But Rice said the state's argument doesn't explain the higher concentrations of uranium. He said he had already explained in his report to the state that changes in sampling procedures couldn't adequately explain such a drastic increase in uranium levels.
"It's an easy bureaucratic response that doesn't cause any trouble," he said. "So they are not rocking any boats by simply repeating what the mine says."

Rich Abitz, the Cincinnati geo-chemist who has studied in situ mines, has looked at Rice's work and believes his conclusion is sound. He also believes that similar findings would be discovered at other in situ mines if extensive sampling was done.

However, Abitz said that anyone living in the immediate groundwater path of the Kingsville Dome mine, or any other in situ mine, should be concerned about the impact to their well water. In dry states like Texas where water is scarce, that is no small issue. "The thing is," he said, "you have destroyed a large volume of water."

A project in motion

For Lilias Jarding, an organizer with the Clean Water Alliance, that risk of groundwater contamination isn't worth taking.

Although Powertech's proposed site is in a rural area of ranch land, and migration of contaminants might potentially reach only a few miles outside of the site, she said that could still make dozens of wells unusable for generations.

Jarding pointed to one of the company's permit applications, which showed 43 livestock wells and 18 domestic wells in a 1.2-mile radius of the site.

But Jarding believes the stakes at this week's permit hearing, where she will be testifying, are bigger than that. If the project is approved, Jarding believes it will open the floodgates for other mining companies interested in uranium deposits in the Black Hills and east of the Missouri River.

This week's permit hearings

State Board of Minerals and Environment hearings:
Sept. 23: 10 a.m. start the first day, large-scale mine permit at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center in Rapid City in the Sylvan I and II rooms.
Public testimony will occur between 10 a.m. and noon on this day only.
Sept. 24 to 26: Case between Powertech and opponents continues each morning at 8:30 a.m. at Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center.
Sept. 27: Case between Powertech and opponents continues at 8:30 a.m., at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center's Alpine Ponderosa Room, in Rapid City.