Water quality and contamination were the central focus of hearings on a proposed plan by Crow Butte Mine to expand its uranium mining operations to the Marsland area.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board met for three days in Crawford last week to hear from mine personnel, staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and experts called by the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the region’s hydrology.
The beginning of the hearings last Tuesday was disrupted for about 90 minutes by OST members who interrupted the hearings with a protest, standing between the ASLB judges and the witnesses for the three agencies. According to KCSR, about 15 tribal members initially stood silently as the hearing began before walking past the witnesses for the NRC, Crow Butte and the OST chanting “cease and desist.” Law enforcement blocked the protesters from directly confronting the ASLB judges.
The group was led by activist Tonya Stands, KCSR reported, who called on the ASLB to halt the hearings. She also denounced the OST’s own legal team for not scheduling tribal members as witnesses at the hearing. The hearing was strictly focused on hydrology, and the tribe’s witnesses were experts in such matters.
Many of the protesters eventually left of their own accord, but Stands was removed by law enforcement at the request of the tribe’s attorneys.
The remaining two days of the hearings were quiet, with few members of the public in attendance. The ASLB expects to rule on the expansion request by Feb. 19, 2019.
Crow Butte, owned by Cameco Resources, applied for the Marsland Expansion permit in 2012, requesting permission to open the site as a satellite facility. The draft environmental assessment says the overall impacts from mining at Marsland will be small. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is contesting the mine’s expansion saying that the NRC failed to include adequate hydrological information in the environmental analysis in order to prove that the mine can contain migration of any fluid. The OST originally requested it be heard on six separate contentions, but only one was allowed to be heard before the ASLB.
Hannan LaGarry, who led a team of geologists for the Nebraska Geological Survey that mapped northwestern Nebraska, testified on behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, citing concerns about both surface and underground leaks from the mine. He also discussed concerns over a lack of containment in the formation in which Crow Butte will inject fluid. The interconnectedness of ground and surface water is proven, and expanding uranium mining to Marsland puts the Niobrara River and the High Plains (Ogallala Aquifer) at risk, he said.
“The High Plains Aquifer would be vulnerable,” LaGarry testified. “The effects would be irreversible and catastrophic.”
Crow Butte insists that the Basal Chadron Formation, where it intends to inject fluid, is self-contained and that no water from it will migrate to other water features, including aquifers, rivers and streams.
LaGarry also alleged that the data the mine and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is relying on is outdated and does not take an adequate look at possible contamination.
“Just because there is a preponderance of data doesn’t mean that data captures what we’re interested in. All data is not equal and not all data is useful,” he said, adding that data collected to determine the presence of ore is looked at differently than data collected with the specific intention of looking for contaminants.
In the event of a leak or a spill, LaGarry said Crow Butte staff today may have the best of intentions in cleaning up such a catastrophe. However, a change of staff or the loss of documentation could mean that a leak or spill goes undetected or that clean-up would not be adequate.
That line of testimony led ASLB Judge Richard Wardwell to inquire about Crow Butte’s processes for discovery and clean-up of a leak.
Crow Butte staff testified that an active well is monitored for pressure and flow changes, and those monitors would sound an alarm if flow varies by two to three gallons per minute.
“Is it possible then that a slow leak could happen without detection?” Wardwell questioned.
“Yes, that’s possible. That’s why we do pressure testing before the lines are put into service,” said one of the Crow Butte expert witnesses. Pressure is also monitored over time.
If an active well is discovered to have a leak, it is shut down immediately, and all of the internal equipment is pulled from the casing. Staff will perform a mechanical integrity test on the well and develop a plan with the controlling regulatory bodies to clean up the leak. That process could include surrounding the well with test holes to sample water, extracting any excess fluid and restoring the water to required parameters. If a spill or leak requires soil excavation, Crow Butte will also implement that practice.
Discovery of a leak on an idle well is a different matter. Crow Butte staff testified that leaks from an idle well may not be discovered unless there is maintenance work being carried out or when the well undergoes a mechanical integrity test, which is required every five years.
Restoration of water quality upon mining cessation was also a concern brought up by OST experts. Mickel Wireman, a retired groundwater expert for the Environmental Protection Agency, testified that he was relieved to learn that the NRC will enforce higher federal standards than those required by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, but that didn’t eliminate all of his concerns.
“The goal here is to go back to baseline,” he said, noting that he senses there is already anticipation by Cameco and the NRC that baseline water quality is unattainable. It appears the NRC is already preparing to lower the standards required for restoration once Crow Butte stops mining the area.
Crow Butte’s first standard is to meet baseline water quality, testified Dr. Elise Stritz for the NRC,
Should the mine be unable to meet those standards, it can submit a proposal for an alternate concentration limit. Such a deviation request would trigger a technical review and hearing process, and would have to be granted as a license amendment, Dr. Stritz said.
“We enjoyed the opportunity to share more of the technical data and answer the ASLB’s questions,” said Doug Pavlick of Cameco Resources following the hearings. “It’s always good to make sure they have all of the information they need to render their decision.”
Though the mine is pursuing expansion permits, the company has no current plans to actively begin mining in Marsland or anywhere else, Pavlick said. The general downturn in demand for yellowcake has prompted Cameco to halt development and production at all three of its U.S. sites.
The uranium mine, owned by Cameco, was started near Crawford in 1986 as a research and development facility. Commercial operations began in 1991. The mine also has requested expansion permits for what it calls the North Trend and Three Crows areas, both of which are closer to the original mine site than Marsland; those permit were filed prior to the Marsland request. However, Marsland is expected to be the largest of the three in terms of production, giving Crow Butte access to an estimated 600,000 pounds of yellowcake per year.
As Crow Butte has depleted its ore reserves at the original mine site, its valuation has fallen to $10.6 million. According to tax records, its reserves were valued at nearly $76 million in 2011, demonstrating a sharp decline while the NRC has reviewed its expansion requests.
The application for the Marsland expansion indicates Cameco plans to operate 11 individual mines in the area, with the product transported to the main mine’s processing facility, should U.S. production ever resume. The ore at Marsland is located in the basal sandstone of the Chadron Formation at depths of 800-1,250 feet, at a width that ranges from 1,000-4,000 feet. The permit requests an expansion that will cover 4,622 acres. Initial construction will disturb just under 600 acres of that, though future construction could disturb another 1,160 acres.
There are 135 private water wells within the required area of review, but only 16 are within the license area itself and only 10 of them are active water supply wells. None draw the basal sandstone of the Chadron Formation.