Murky waters:
Speedy approvals of uranium leaching can harm land, lives

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the uranium-mining lobby are trying to fast-track approvals for a potentially hazardous form of uranium mining called "in-situ leaching."

At issue are questions of environmental justice and the nature of what safe drinking water is, especially after pristine aquifers have been contaminated and attempts have been made to clean them up.

In-situ leaching involves injecting highly alkaline chemicals into groundwater, dissolving uranium that coats subterranean sediment. The chemicals loosen the uranium, which is pumped out and processed, leaving large amounts of wastewater.

Typically, in-situ leaching sites in New Mexico would be close to Navajo Nation and Laguna and Acoma Pueblo lands and aquifers.

Uranium companies say that in-situ leaching will not only bring jobs into the area but also save miners the risks of digging for uranium. Others point out that miners are "saved" from those risks, because in-situ leaching doesn't use miners, and the jobs it generates are technical and scarce.

What irks New Mexicans, including Gov. Bill Richardson, is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's efforts to use "generic environmental impact statements" when approving in-situ leaching mining permits.

While the plan does allow informal local reviews, it's unlikely a generic environmental impact statement would make room for public comment. Opposition to the plan contends there is no such thing as a "generic environment" and that a generic environmental impact statement would be a useless sham, designed to speed up uranium extraction for the benefit of uranium-mining companies.

Although depicted as a benign process with virtually no risk to drinking water, in-situ leaching has a reputation outside the uranium and nuclear industries as a dirty process with potentially great public hazards.

Major problems involve: leaching chemicals that invade freshwater; high accumulations of radium and radon; the dissolving not only of uranium but also of other radioactive materials and heavy metals, such as radium, lead and cadmium; disposing of wastewater and guarding for leaks; and the practice of diluting wastewater with clean water and injecting it into the aquifer.

Would anyone in his or her right mind drink that?

The most troubling situation involves what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers restored in-situ leaching water. An in-situ leaching project in Wyoming ended up with restored water that had 700 times as much uranium in it as before leaching began.

The restoration process took nine years. Before leaching, the natural groundwater there had 50 micrograms of uranium per liter in it. The EPA safe-drinking standard is 30 micrograms.

When leaching ended, the groundwater had 40,000 micrograms per liter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Restoration reduced it to 3,500 micrograms.

The uranium industry has an unhealthy history. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has already paid $1.2 billion, mostly to uranium workers and downwinders.

We don't need fast-track, generic regulations. We need to watch uranium mining on site like hawks.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
August 24, 2007