Sunday, September 22, 2013

State mining department responds to legislator’s questions about uranium report

State mining department responds to legislator’s questions about uranium report
Posted: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 9:00 am
Editor’s note: Del. Don Merricks of Chatham sought answers from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy after a June report commissioned by the Roanoke River Basin Association questioned the state’s uranium exploration permit for Virginia Uranium Inc.

 The Southwest Research and Information Center’s report, “Review of Records of Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Uranium Exploration Permit 90484EX Issued to Virginia Uranium Inc.,” raised a number of questions about the 2007 exploration permit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham.

 Here is the state’s lengthy and unabridged response to Merricks’ questions:
DMME staff has reviewed the initial and final SRIC reports released June 16, 2013, and July 22, 2013 respectively.

 Although the final document has corrected many of the errors in the initial re-lease, several inaccuracies remain in it as well as incorrect conclusions drawn from those inaccuracies.
The report indicates it is based upon information received from private citizens.

 Our review leads us to believe the inaccuracies in the report most likely result from incomplete information and a misunderstanding of the Virginia uranium exploration permitting program.

 This letter is not intended to give an analysis of the SRIC report, but rather to provide some important background information about uranium in Virginia, and address the questions you posed.

 Merricks: I have serious concerns about the permit-ting process used by DMME in the issuance of the exploratory drilling permit 90484EX issued to Virginia Uranium Inc. (VUI) in 2007.
Pursuant to Chapter 21, Title 45.1 of the Code of Virginia, DMME is authorized to implement a permitting program solely for exploration activity.
And yet, despite the General Assembly’s statutory directives on this matter, there appear to be no formally promulgated and publicly accessible criteria to guide DMME staff and in-form permit applicants of what is required.

 How is this possible?

 DMME: As you stated above, Chapter 21 of Title 45.1 of the Code of Virginia (Code) provides authorization for DMME to administer the uranium exploration permitting program.
The specific requirements for the exploration permit are listed in the statute, which provides guidance to permit applicants and DMME staff alike.

 The statute does not require the promulgation of regulations.

 With the recent interest in uranium development potential at Coles Hill, and potentially additional exploration elsewhere, DMME conducted a review in 2007 of the uranium exploration permit forms the agency uses for exploration permitting, drill hole management, and bonding, and updated them as needed.

 These requirements were placed in a special section of DMME’s website and registered on Virginia’s regulatory Town Hall website to ensure permit applicants and the public have easy access to them.

 Regarding the permitting process for Permit 90484EX, Virginia Uranium Inc. contacted DMME in early 2007 and began preparing an application for a uranium exploration permit at the Coles Hill site.
The draft application was initially received in October 2007 and following a review and revisions was accepted as complete and the permit is-sued in November 2007.
The exploration permit proposed to re-enter up to 20 historic drill holes for validation, and drill up to 20 new holes. Between December 2007 and July 2008, VUI completed a total of 10 drill holes; 7 as re-entry of historic drill holes and 3 new holes.

 In accordance with the permit requirements, the holes were sealed with cement immediately following the completion of data collection.
One hole located in the north exploration area within the uranium-mineralized zone was converted to a monitoring well.

 The permit amendment that authorized this conversion required that the exploration hole be sealed with cement from the hole bottom to a depth of 300 feet below collar elevation.

 Merricks: My understanding is that the permit was issued in an extraordinarily short period of time with no opportunity for the public or adjacent land owners to object to its issuance prior to it being granted to VUI. I am aware of no other program or agency that issues permits for activities with the equivalent potential to harm adjacent land owners that does not provide opportunity for comment by the public prior to the permit being issued. Can you ex-plain where the authority to operate in such a manner is delegated to the DMME?

 DMME: The authority for DMME to regulate exploration for minerals, including uranium, coal, and all other solid minerals, is set out by the General Assembly in the Code.
The statutory authority and framework for Virginia’s program for exploration for uranium ore is set out in Chapter 21 of Title 45.1 of the Code.

 The statute prescribes in detail the standards applicable to uranium exploration, and does not provide opportunity for comment by the public prior to a permit being issued.

 Similarly, § 45.1-233 of the Code authorizes DMME’s program for coal exploration, and does not require public notice of exploration operations.

 For all other mineral commodities, § 45.1-180 of the Code specifically exempts any exploration activity from the requirement of a permit.

 One measure of DMME’s performance is the timely, efficient processing of permit applications.
DMME procedures encourage, and in some cases require, permit applicants to review draft applications with inspectors or other staff before they are accepted by the agency.

 These steps help ensure applicants are informed of all permit requirements, and submit complete and accurate applications addressing conditions at the proposed mineral extraction sites.
Complete, accurate applications allow the most efficient use of DMME’s technical permit review staff time, and minimize the time needed to process applications. DMME worked with VUI to ensure its understanding of statutory requirements.

 Regarding the timing of the exploration permit, DMME staff discussed the permit requirements with VUI beginning in the summer of 2007.

 A draft application was provided to DMME in late October 2007. The final per-mit application was received in early November 2007 and was approved in late November 2007.

 Merricks: I am also troubled by the manner in which the exploration was apparently conducted.
According to the Southwest Research and Information Center report, the DMME files do not contain the basic information about the exploratory activities i.e., there are no DMME Uranium Exploration Drill Hole Completion Report forms.

 Were those never completed? Never submitted for review? Lost?

 How can DMME and the public understand the nature of the site and deposit with-out this information?
How can the public be assured their state officials have taken the necessary steps to properly and efficiently man-age this type of activity with-out this information?

 DMME: Exploration activities are often conducted in a business competitive environment generating proprietary information used by the permit holder to make decisions concerning land acquisitions or the economic vi-ability of the deposit.
Therefore, exploration permits in mineral extraction programs administered by DMME often have confidentiality requirements prescribed by statute.

 For example, § 45.1-361.6 governs oil and gas exploration and contains a confidentiality requirement of 2 years and allows for extensions.

 Coal exploration is governed by § 45.1-233, and that statute requires confidentiality indefinitely.
With respect to uranium, § 45.1-285 of the Code provides for the confidentiality of “all logs, surveys, plats and reports filed under this chapter…”

The reports you ask about have been received by DMME, but are held confidential in compliance with the Code.

 DMME has responded to every FOIA request received to date and has provided thousands of pages of information (greater than 70 megabytes in electronic form) not held confidential under § 45.1-285.
The permit documentation is also available on DMME’s website and has been since 2007.

 Merricks: Bonding for this exploration was set at $10,000 per drill hole and $2,000 per acre of disturbed land at the drill pads.
Please explain the basis for the setting of those bond amounts. Is the expectation that, if water quality were adversely impacted by an exploratory drilling operation, that these extraordinarily low bonding amounts would be sufficient to remedy all damage?
Relatedly, please provide a report on the effect drilling on the land at the drill sites as required by the DMME Bond Release and Approval Forms.

 DMME: Bonding for exploration activities is provided for under § 45.1-274.B of the Code.
The bond form and amount is set by DMME to ensure compliance with the requirements for drilling, redrilling, and plugging of holes, and reclamation of any surface disturbances.
Bonds are provided to ensure the work required under the permit can be completed by a third party should the permittee fail to meet those requirements.

 Unforeseen offsite impacts, damages, claims, or surface or groundwater remediation are not items enumerated in the Code to be covered by exploration bonds.

 The basis for setting the minimum bond amounts is DMME’s experience with historic uranium exploration drilling at Coles Hill and the agency’s experience with the drilling of nearly 8,000 active oil and gas wells.

 § 45.1-361.31A of the Code provides that the mini-mum bond furnished for gas and oil wells shall be not less than $10,000 per well plus $2,000 per acre of disturbed land.

 These amounts were determined to be adequate, given the nature of the exploration activity VUI was proposing, re-entering historic holes that were successfully closed in the early 1980s plus drilling a limited number of new holes.

 In addition, exploration drill holes are significantly different than oil and gas wells. They are smaller in diameter than oil and gas wells, and are shallower in depth.

 To date, nine (9) holes have been completed and plugged as required by § 45.1-277 of the Code.
Surface disturbances associated with drilling activity have been regraded and revegetated.
Ground surface radiation levels at the drill sites have been surveyed and found to be at or below pre-disturbance levels.

 DMME still holds a $4,000 bond on surface disturbance and a $10,000 bond on one remaining borehole that was converted to a monitoring well.
 Merricks: Water usage is a major concern with any mining or exploration activities, especially in a large-scale agricultural community without access to a central water system.
Despite this, according to the Southwest Research and Information Center’s report, there is no evidence that the required reporting on water usage at the VUI exploration site was ever submitted.
If it was, please provide that information. If it was not, please explain why and what penalties resulted from those permit violations.

 DMME: The permit addressed anticipated water consumption for drilling activities and required the drillers to limit water withdrawal to less than 9,000 gallons per day to minimize impact on surrounding donor streams.

 It also required the drillers to maintain a daily log of estimated water withdrawals.
Inspections on site commenced on December 14, 2007, and continued through-out the drilling operations, which were completed in July 2008.

 During that period, a total of 23 inspections were completed, some of which were conducted over multiple day periods.

 Since the completion of drilling activities, an additional 37 inspections have been conducted. In total, DMME inspectors have filed 60 inspection reports on this site to date.

 Inspections conducted during the drilling activities included discussion of these requirements with the drillers and verification that the logs were kept during drilling operations and water withdrawals met the permit requirements.

 Records of water withdrawals exist only in documents that fall under the confidentiality requirements of § 45.1-285 and cannot be provided.

 Merricks: Please provide the detailed plan for characterizing potentially affected surface and ground water resources. Are the data for comparable studies normally collected prior to the permit application and review by DMME staff?

 DMME: The application for a uranium exploration permit requires the identification of all surface water resources on or adjacent to the property, together with measurements of the back-ground pH for those water-ways (Section 15, Form DMM-U-1).

 In addition, Section 22 re-quires a radiation management plan for the purposes of monitoring and minimizing radiation exposure to workers, the public, and the environment.

 For these purposes, the plan describes the locations of data collection points for both surface water and groundwater resources used to measure water quality conditions prior to drilling, during drilling, and following the completion of drilling.

 The initial, pre-drilling sampling event is conducted after the permit has been is-sued and is used as a baseline measurement for comparison to established water quality criteria and future monitoring results.
The operations and reclamation plans (Section 18) require the immediate plugging of uranium exploration drill holes following completion to ensure minimal impacts of the drilling on groundwater.

 Erosion and sediment control standards are intended to minimize the potential for offsite discharge of any sediment, drilling fluid, or surface water.

 The permit includes water quality standards for water released from the exploration activities to ensure any discharge meets the regulatory standards of DEQ or EPA.
Reclamation requirements for the disturbed ground surface included pre- and post- reclamation radiation measurements, regrading, and revegetation of the disturbed areas, which in total encompass approximately 1.5 acres to date.

 These requirements are stringent when compared to those required for the exploration of other mineral and fossil fuel resources in Virginia.

 The only other exploration permit that DMME administers is for gas and oil, which requires the monitoring of adjacent wells and surface waters within 500 feet of the exploration hole.
For coal exploration drilling, § 45.1-233 of the Code requires only that the operator notify DMME of the intent to conduct exploration activities.

 With respect to all other mineral commodities, Chapter 16 of Title 45.1 specifically excludes exploration from any permit requirements.

 Merricks: It appears, again from the Southwest Research and Information Center’s report, that basic scientific guidelines and requirements for the collection of water quality data were ignored.
If information such as sampling locations, parameters being investigated, sampling technique, analytical procedures for those data collected in the field, sample preservation methods, mode of transportation to the lab, lab qualifications/certification, holding times, analytical technique, quality assurance and quality control description, and statistical methods used to analyze the data exist, please provide.
If not available please advise and please explain this apparent lack of attention to detail in such an important scientific inquiry.

 DMME: The locations of monitoring stations and the required water quality standards are clearly identified in the permit and in the sampling reports available from DMME.
Sampling techniques, analytical procedures, sample preservation methods, transportation, lab certification, holding times, and quality assurance and quality control procedures are the responsibility of the permit applicant, and thus VUI and its contractors are the best source for this information.

 Although subject to review and possible modification by DMME staff if any anomalies are found in the sample results, these procedures are not specified in the exploration permit and the permit holder is not required to submit this information to DMME.

 VUI contracted Dewberry Engineers to conduct monitoring activities for the exploration permit. Dewberry obtains water samples and sends them to laboratories for analysis following its internal protocols.

 Heavy metal and radionuclide analysis is currently being performed by GEL Laboratories, LLC. Coliform bacteria analysis is being performed by Pace Analytical Services, Inc. Both of these laboratories are certified under Virginia accreditation programs.

 DMME routinely reviews data submitted by the analytical laboratory under the conditions of the permit to en-sure water quality standards continue to be met.

 Merricks: Stream sediments can be an important media for the concentration of some heavy metals and other pollutants, yet they were ignored during the investigation of the impacts of exploratory drilling on the environment in Pittsylvania County. Please explain the reasoning that went into the omission of sediment analyses.

 DMME: Given the small amount of disturbed area (1.5 acres out of 194.01 covered by the permit) and the statutory and permit requirements to expeditiously plug the boreholes and promptly complete reclamation of the surface disturbances to prevent any release of sediment or drilling fluids, there is no purpose or anticipated benefit in conducting stream sediment analysis.

 Because a significant uranium deposit exists in the area, it would not be unexpected for the geochemistry of the sediments to reflect the geochemistry of the under-lying geology of the area. In addition, any sampling would need to account for, and be distinguishable from, contributions from the large-scale farming and other activities in the watershed.

 Merricks: One additional area that particularly concerns water quality experts and environmental scientists is the ground water sampling technique employed.
As I understand it, standard practice is to purge the well of any stored water to be sure the sample represents aquifer water quality and not water standing in a well that may be affected by poor well construction, surface water or other influences.
This method was apparently not used in this case. Please explain why and how the water quality data may have been compromised due to improper sampling technique.

 DMME: Groundwater samples have been collected from five wells, four of which (RW-1 through -4) are private water wells in existence prior to the issuance of the exploration permit.
Three of these are active wells (RW-1, RW-3, and RW-4) that were sampled from existing household or plumbed outlets.

 The purging procedure used by Dewberry for these wells involved allowing the pump to run five minutes prior to sample collection, a standard practice in water quality sampling ensuring water stored in the well and conveyance system has been cleared. There is no evidence water quality data has been compromised in these wells.

 The fifth well, MW-1, is a monitoring well installed by VUI in the uranium-mineralized zone of the north exploration area.

 Water samples from this well and RW-2 (an inactive well) were collected using a bailer device without advance purging so as to reduce the total volume of excess water that would possibly need to be managed. DMME’s evaluation of the analytical laboratory results for these two wells takes into consideration this sampling method.

 Merricks: Why were some wells omitted during some sampling events?

 DMME: The last exploration drill hole was plugged in July 2008. Quarterly monitoring of all sample points identified in the permit continued through the second quarter of 2009, with no appreciable quality variations.
In August of 2009, VUI submitted an amendment to reduce the volume of sampling based on the results of the past year’s testing.
The amendment was granted with the proviso that the full sampling program would be reinstated prior to the resumption of any additional exploration. Suspension of sampling for RW-3 and RW-4 was part of that amendment.

 Merricks: How do you ex-plain the fluctuation in the concentration of radionuclides in those sample results that were reported?
DMME: As previously noted in the response to question 6, the intent of this sampling program was to verify compliance with the environmental radiation management plan.
The sampling was not part of a groundwater hydrology monitoring program or an environmental assessment.

 The water wells that showed fluctuations in concentrations of radionuclides in some groundwater samples are within the known extent of the naturally-elevated uranium-mineralized area and do not indicate impacts from exploration drilling.

 Assessment of the specific environmental and geological causes for the observed fluctuations is not within the scope of the environmental radiation management plan.
More important is the observation that radionuclide concentrations in those water wells outside of the uranium-mineralized area remain in compliance with water quality criteria.