10/10/2011 Gallup Independent: Uranium mining license: Water wells, pipeline needed

10/10/2011 Uranium mining license: Water wells, pipeline needed by Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall sought assurances Thursday from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that Navajos living in Crownpoint would have a safe source of drinking water if Hydro Resources Inc. carries through with its plans for in situ mining of uranium in the Westwater Canyon Aquifer. In a hearing on cleanup of legacy uranium sites before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Udall also pressed the NRC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on proposed future uranium mining operations.

“Crownpoint is the location of a proposed in-situ leach uranium recovery operation near the Churchrock legacy site, and I understand the NRC has set up a license for HRI at the Crownpoint site that is dependent on several conditions, including legacy cleanup,” Udall said, and asked the NRC to clarify the status and content of HRI’s permit.

Michael Weber of the NRC said HRI, a subsidiary of Uranium Resources Inc., is in the process of completing some preparatory activities and he expects the agency to issue a letter to HRI in the near future, authorizing them to proceed.

The Westwater aquifer, a major source of drinking water for Crownpoint, “is fairly good water,” which the community has relied on for a long time, Udall said. “If the requirements of the permit were fulfilled, could the NRC and the EPA guarantee a safe and a consistent water source for the Crownpoint community?”

Weber said a “unique” provision of the NRC license is it requires HRI to provide an alternate water source for the local community before the company begins mining. “Typically, the in-situ recovery facilities are located at some distance from communities and so that doesn’t present itself, but in this situation, because of the unique circumstances involving HRI-Crownpoint, that was a provision in the licensing of the facility,” he said.

HRI must replace two Navajo Tribal Utility Authority water supply wells and three Bureau of Indian Affairs wells. In addition, the company must construct the necessary water pipeline and provide funds so the existing water supply systems of NTUA and BIA can be connected to the new wells.

“I would point out that in the history of in-situ recovery regulation, we have not seen a situation where a local supply well has been adversely impacted by the mining,” Weber said. However, he added, there have been “excursions.”

“An excursion is where an elevated level has been detected in either a monitoring well laterally, distant from the minefield, or above or below the aquifer that’s being mined,” he said. “If those excursions are detected, the licensee has to take action to correct that situation and at the end of active mining has to restore the aquifer back to suitable water-quality standards.”

Udall said he thought that license condition was “greatly appreciated by the local community.”

Eric Jantz, attorney for Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, which has vigorously opposed HRI’s plans to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Churchrock, said, “I have not heard anyone in Crownpoint express appreciation that License Condition 10.27 was included. All of the people I’ve spoken with are just pissed off that the project was licensed in the first place.”

An interesting problem for HRI, he said, is that in 1991, HRI applied to New Mexico Environment Department for an aquifer designation for its Crownpoint site, which the state granted. However, EPA, exercising its supervisory authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, overruled NMED.

“In rejecting HRI’s aquifer designation application, EPA said that the Westwater aquifer at the Crownpoint site is an underground source of drinking water. I can’t see how – either technically or politically – EPA could backtrack from this position. All this seems to suggest HRI couldn’t mine at the Crownpoint site even if it wanted to,” Jantz said.

“Given that Section 17 and Unit 1 are Indian Country and subject to the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, that only leaves HRI with Section 8.” The 2005 act prohibited uranium mining and processing in Navajo Indian Country.

Chris Shuey of Southwest Research Information Center said NTUA’s management board adopted a resolution in December 1997 asserting that it would not allow replacement of its two municipal wells in Crownpoint.

“In March 2005, Dr. John Leeper with the Navajo Water Resources Department gave an expert declaration in which he concluded that the Westwater aquifer would continue to be a major source of water supply for the Eastern Agency, even with development of the Navajo-Gallup project water line, and that the Navajo-Gallup project was never intended to replace the use or reliance on groundwater for municipal and agricultural supply in the Eastern Agency,” Shuey said.

NRC’s condition that HRI provide an alternate water supply was not opposed, Shuey said, “since it was an acknowledgment by even NRC that, despite HRI’s assurances to the contrary, ISL mining could not be done at the Crownpoint wellfield without impacting at least NTUA-1 and possibly impacting NTUA -2.”

NRC called the location of proposed ISL mining within a half mile of a currently operating municipal water supply well “unprecedented” in the history of ISL mining, Shuey said.

In the 1997 resolution, which was adopted unanimously, NTUA said the NRC proposal did not address future operation and maintenance expenses the utility may incur due to calcification of its water distribution system, nor future water quality and quantity concerns in connection with the relocated water supply wells and restoration of groundwater after mining.

“The Management Board directs NTUA management to inform HRI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it will not agree to plug and abandon its Crownpoint wells.”

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