Exploration for Uranium
“For too long, we have allowed uranium miners to explore, mine and leave behind contaminants that poison our groundwater.” Grassroots opponents, who launched the Alliance of Texans for Uranium Research and Action , complain that current law allows companies to test baseline groundwater conditions before they begin mining - but not before they begin exploration. "
The Earth Times reported that in Missouri baseline testing was done before exploration has begun:
BOULDER, CO -- 03/10/09 -- Gustavson Uranium Systems has completed the testing of 66 existing water wells in its exploration program for possible uranium deposits in the Bootheel region of Missouri. The company is now in the planning stages for an exploratory drilling program to help identify what its geologists believe may prove to be a significant deep uranium system underlying portions of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The test data provides a baseline of the current groundwater chemistry with content of any toxic elements, heavy metals or uranium occurring naturally. "These will be important levels to stay below, should the company advance into the recovery of what we believe could be possible deep uranium deposits. All future activities must protect the important shallow groundwater resources." www.earthtimes.org
Cross Contamination of Groundwater Zones
The Uranium industry uses the words "cross communication"... a nice way of saying 'contamination.' Cross contamination happens when good water is contaminated by the uranium ore 'tailings' while they are being chewed up and brought out of the drilling test hole. Then, while the hole is open, downhole waters are mixing from different zones. Good water mixing with contaminated water from the ore zone is a probability. Unlined pits are still allowed during uranium exploration in many states (Colorado). Uranium brought up during drilling is laid into unlined pits, then tilled into the ground.
Proof of Cross-contamination of Groundwater by TVA
The following is "An Analysis of Aquifer Tests Conducted at the Proposed Burdock Uranium Mine Site" which was performed for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The conclusions points to leakage between aquifers being increased due to the "intensive uranium exploration." The conclusion says that there is "direct connection of aquifers via numerous old unplugged exploratory boreholes." In other words, along with the normal 'connection' between the aquifers that is naturally occurring, there is direct connection -- cross communication -- that occurs because of the numerous exploratory boreholes.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The aquifer test results indicate that the Fuson member of the Lakota formation is a leaky aquitard separating the Fall River and Lakota aquifers. The hydraulic communication between the two aquifers observed during the test is believed to be the result of (1) general leakage through the primary pore space and naturally occurring joints and fractures of the Fuson Shale, and (2) direct connection of aquifers via numerous old unplugged exploratory boreholes. Whereas, the former leakage mechanism is a regional characteristic of the Fuson, leakage caused by borehole short-circuiting is probably limited to the relatively small area of intensive uranium exploration in the Burdock vicinity.
Overview of exploration problems
States make the rules and regulations that are required of uranium companies who explore for uranium. However, the State of Colorado does not have the necessary funds to enforce the rules. In the case of exploration, insufficient rules and regulations exist. The state does not charge enough in fees to the uranium companies to fund enforcement. For instance, Black Range Minerals was charged $23,000 in fees by the State of Colorado for drilling permits. At the public hearing, one of the property owners stated that he’d spent well over that amount on his water well alone. In other words, the state does not charge enough money to reclaim--even one--water well if it were contaminated.
In Colorado, because the public knows that the Department of Reclamation Mining and Safety does not have the funds, or current protective regulations to protect nearby groundwater, the County Commissioners become very important in the decision-making process. In Fremont County, the Commissioners attempted to allow the uranium exploration to move forward while holding the drilling company to a higher standard than DRMS does. But the County cannot legally hold a drilling or mining company to a higher standard, only the state has that authority.
In an election year, the commissioners attempted to place extra "Conditions" on the drilling company, which they, of course, opposed and when the dust settled… the County’s conditions had no teeth and the drilling company had a permit. Even though the County hired a "third-party Hydrogeologist" with mining company money, he can only hold the company to the outdated, insufficient state standards.
The moral of this story is that once a county grants a permit, the County's authority is severely limited. And it is important to know whether or not your state charges enough money in fees to enable the responsible agency to enforce proper, current drilling methods. However, understand that returning groundwater to its original quality can be impossible. A better way to protect groundwater from contamination is to get laws passed that require a baseline to be determined prior to exploration drilling, steel casing to be cemented in place before drilling into the uranium ore body (thus, protecting good water zones from being contaminated by "bad" water zones), and drill pits to be lined.
Claim Staking & Mineral Leasing
The start of any exploration activity is usually preceeded by a search of ownership records to verify who owns the subsurface mineral interest. Next a company would obtain a lease on the mineral interest. The 1872 mining law, signed by Ulysees S. Grant, currently governs the practice of harvesting subsurface minerals that ,in most cases, is owned by someone other than the surface owner. And this important question should arise: Can the subsurface uranium minerals actually be harvested without sever risk to the suface owner? That answer for small-acreage parcels is... NO! Yet, the 137 year-old law allows the practice.
Permitting for exploration begins at the state level in the U.S. and then to the county level. A County may require a "special" or "conditional" land-use permit. County Commissioners or Supervisors and land use regulations become very important at this stage.
The Fremont County, Colorado, Board of Commissioners approved a Conditional Use Permit for Uranium Exploration within 500 feet of 44 land and home owners, living in six residentially-developed communities, in July of 2008.
So, don't think it can't happen near you. Right now uranium exploration projects are proposed in: Arizona, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, , and Wyoming.
We would like to hear from other states to understand what your permitting process entails. We are only able to comment on Colorado's permitting process. Please submit information on your state's process to us so that we may inform others.
Once the area has been identified and permitted then, exploration for the uranium is done by drilling holes into the ore body.
In Colorado, the Uranium Exploration Company is allowed to leave the drill cuttings on the surface in the "Mud Pit" used for drilling. The contamination levels can reach as high as 5 lbs. of uranium left in one location and on average run over 1 lb. This does not include the other contaminates that are also brought to the surface.
Does your state require uranium mud drilling pits to be lined?
How often does the regulatory agency in your state check abandonment procedures?
Colorado does not require uranium mud drilling pits to be lined. While the Oil and Gas Industry must use lined pits and haul its radioactive waste away, this state allows uranium drillers to place TENORM (technically enhanced naturally occuring radioactive material) into the unlined pits, where it is tilled into the surface layer of the soil and left to leach into the groundwater. Just one more of the ways that the gov't agency who is supposed to regulate this industry--doesn't.
The Department of Reclamation Mining and Safety (DRMS), Colorado's uranium exploration and mining regulatory agency may visit a uranium exploration site to ensure that the wells are 'abandoned' (the process of sealing the test holes) properly, or it may review the paperwork provided by the industry itself and call it good.
The Fox Guarding the Henhouse
It is important to know your state's laws. In Colorado, we've found that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and DRMS allow the industry to do its testing for contamination, and its own baseline water testing necessary for a mining permit. The industry uses terms like baseline to obfuscate the real meaning. Baseline as an industry term means in essence "the conditions existing at the time the study is done" and is not a reflection on water quality standards or even uncontaminated background conditions. Baseline studies are often only done after the mining company has started their operations and are scewed by this activity.
Fracture studies are not required by the Colorado Department of Reclamation Mining and Safety (DRMS) on exploration areas. A fracture study would assist in understanding groundwater flow directions and speed. In the Tallahassee Area where the County Commissioners approved uranium exploration without understanding the entirety of the process and probable contamination, a fracture study would have enable the regulators to understand the speed at which a contamination “plume” would spread from the area being explored. The County’s Independent Hydrogeologist , who used the word ‘plume’ in a meeting to inform the public of the Australian company’s progress, refused to require a fracture study. The Independent Hydrogeologist also allows the industry to use its own consultant to perform water quality and quantity tests for the project; thus, effectively carrying on the practice of allowing the “fox to guard the henhouse.”
Exploration Water Usage
Considerable water quantities are required for the exploration drilling process. For a drill hole 1,000 feet in depth anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 gallons of water are required, depending on the geology and the type of drilling being performed.