Powertech, a Canadian company, is proposing to build a $51 million in situ leach uranium mine near Edgemont. The Journal asked the company how, if the project is permitted, it would prevent incidents that have occurred at in situ mines across the country.
Powertech's response is published below:
Re: Response to Questions and Concerns Regarding Powertech’s Proposed Dewey-Burdock Project
We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your questions and welcome any opportunity to explain our project to the public.
Powertech was not provided details or sources for most of the statements made regarding previously or currently operating ISR facilities. Details about notices of violation are typically available through the applicable regulatory authorities. Powertech has done its best to find out what it could about these issues in a short period of time and prepare additional clarification of many issues. Powertech does not have first-hand knowledge of these purported events to comment on what occurred or what actions were taken by the operator. Based on the limited research conducted in preparing these responses, the allegations frequently fail to mention the remedial actions which would be expected to occur following the issuance of notices of violation. Furthermore, many of the facilities listed below are in operation today and are required to meet federal and state regulations that provide for protection of human health and the environment.
In regard to your question regarding the precautions Powertech will take in operating the Dewey-Burdock Project, please see the following responses, which point out some of the procedures, engineering controls, and other measures which will provide for safe operation with minimal environmental impact. A more detailed assessment of the potential impacts of the Dewey-Burdock Project are presented in the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (NUREG-1910, Supplement 4, Volumes 1 and 2) published by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in November 2012 (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1910/). In addition, documentation of the NRC’s review of the proposed operation, monitoring and reclamation of Dewey-Burdock Project is published in the Safety Evaluation Report for this project, dated March 2013 (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1305/ML13052A182.pdf). In this report NRC recommends licensing the project based on the determination that the project can safely operate within the federal regulations (p. 2):
“… in accordance with 10 CFR 40.32(b)–(c), the staff finds that the applicant is qualified by reason of training and experience to use source material for its requested purpose, and that the applicant’s proposed equipment and procedures for use at its Dewey-Burdock Project facility are adequate to protect public health and minimize danger to life or property. Therefore, in accordance with 10 CFR 40.32(d), the staff finds that issuance of a license to the applicant will not be inimical to the common defense and security or to the health and safety of the public.”
Additional information on the design, operation, monitoring, and potential environmental impacts of uranium ISR facilities can be found in the NRC Generic Environmental Impact Statement for In-Situ Leach Uranium Milling Facilities (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1910/).
Following please find your questions or statements in italics followed by Powertech’s responses in the Specific Comments section below.
• Willow Creek mine, Johnson & Campbell Counties, Wyo. (Uranium One): A mine that has operated under different companies since the late 1970s. It is divided between two sites: the Irigaray plant and the Christensen Ranch satellite facility. When the operation was under the ownership of Wyoming Mineral Corporation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state found the Irigaray site experienced repeated fires and excursions of chemicals outside monitoring sites. Basic tests were also not being performed.
General Response: Powertech has not researched the alleged excursions in the 1970s and 1980s at the Wyoming facility; however, the proposed Dewey-Burdock Project has been designed to avoid excursions of ISR solutions and, if an excursion were to occur, to rapidly detect and correct the excursion before it resulted in an impact to groundwater quality outside of the exempted aquifer in which ISR will occur. Following is clarification that an excursion in and of itself is an early warning of potential migration of ISR solutions and does not signify groundwater impacts outside of the approved mining zone.
Excursion monitoring is an important aspect of protecting groundwater quality at uranium ISR facilities. Uranium recovery takes place within a portion of an aquifer that is exempted by EPA from protection as an underground source of drinking water (USDW). Monitoring wells that surround each well field are used to detect the potential migration of ISR solutions away from the well field, either horizontally or vertically. An excursion occurs when specific water quality indicators are detected in a monitoring well above limits established in the license. Importantly, the monitoring wells that surround the well fields are located within the exempted portion of the aquifer and are used as an early warning of potential migration toward the aquifer exemption boundary. Therefore, an excursion is an early warning of a potential well field imbalance and does not signify contamination outside of the exempted aquifer. As noted by NRC in the Moore Ranch Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1910/s1/, p. B-75):
“… NRC does not define an excursion as contamination that moves into a USDW. An excursion is defined as an event where a monitoring well in an overlying, underlying, or perimeter well ring detects an increase in specific water quality indicators, usually chloride, alkalinity and conductivity, which may signal that fluids are moving out from the wellfield … These specific water quality parameters … serve as early indicators of imbalance in the wellfield flow system to notify operators to take appropriate actions. The perimeter monitoring wells are located in a buffer region surrounding the wellfield within the exempted portion of the aquifer. These wells are specifically located in this buffer zone to detect and correct an excursion before it reaches a USDW … To date, no excursions from an NRC-licensed ISR facility has contaminated a USDW.”
In 2011, the state issued a violation after it was discovered that 7,000 to 10,000 of sodium chloride brine was released into a dry ephemeral stream at the Irigaray site. The company took two weeks to notify the state, when it should have occurred in 24 hours.
General Response: This Notice of Violation did not result in surface water contamination and the compliance issues were promptly resolved (within 1 month). The September 16, 2011 Wyoming DEQ inspection report for this incident notes that the spill of sodium chloride brine (saltwater) had spilled from a tank inside a building (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1127/ML11278A009.pdf). It noted that “no surface water was affected by the spill” and “The amount of affected topsoil is small.” Wyoming DEQ subsequently issued a Notice of Compliance on October 19, 2011, one month after the Notice of Violation was issued. It notes that “The remedial actions are satisfactory to the Department of Environmental Quality” and “All compliance issues related to the NOV have been satisfied.” (http://deq.state.wy.us/out/downloads/LQ%20NOC%204900-11.pdf)
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Powertech’s large scale mine permit application available on DENR’s website describes how “The design of the CPP and Satellite Facility [processing buildings] will be such that any spill will be contained within the respective building.” Specifically, every chemical storage tank will be provided with secondary containment with a volume at least 10 percent greater than the tank volume. In addition, curbs will be provided around the entire perimeter of the processing facility buildings that will contain a spill from any process vessel or storage tank within the building. Finally, the large scale mine permit will require Powertech to “immediately report to the department any reportable discharge or release of regulated substances to the environment … within 24 hours after the suspected release is identified” (see DENR recommended conditions under Spill Contingency Plan).
In 2010, then under the ownership of COGEMA, the state found problems with water restoration efforts at Christensen Ranch. A state geologist found uranium levels were "over 70 times the maximum contaminate level" near an aquifer exemption boundary. In 2011, the state issued a violation after discovering the company was failing to properly conduct groundwater tests.
General Response: Powertech has been unable to find the cited 2010 Wyoming DEQ report on the NRC ADAMS document server and does not know what is meant by “near an aquifer exemption boundary.” Regarding the cited 2011 violation, Powertech reviewed an April 2011 Notice of Violation issued by the Wyoming DEQ indicating that Uranium One had found a number of monitoring wells in a recently started mine unit that had not been sampled in accordance with the permit. They informed DEQ of the omission and DEQ issued a citation for failing to collect 82 samples out of 462 (18%) required samples (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1113/ML11131A113.pdf). Uranium One responded in May 2011 with commitments to sample the wells and increase the frequency of meetings between sampling personnel and radiation safety personnel and management to ensure compliance with the sampling schedule (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1115/ML11153A012.pdf). As part of the settlement agreement with Wyoming DEQ, Uranium One subsequently developed a “white paper” detailing procedures and corrective actions for preventing non-compliance of this type in the future. Regarding groundwater tests, Powertech’s permit and license applications include commitments to routinely monitor groundwater quality and groundwater levels in monitoring wells surrounding each well field (horizontally and vertically). The monitoring schedules will be enforced through the various permits and licenses.
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Powertech’s permit and license application documents describe how groundwater restoration to federal standards will be required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license for this project. Powertech will be required to restore groundwater quality in each well field to a) pre-operational baseline water quality, b) federal drinking water standards, or c) an alternate concentration limit approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as protective of human health or the environment. Importantly, at the aquifer exemption boundary, the groundwater will be required to meet pre-operational baseline (i.e., pre-mining) water quality or federal drinking water standards.
• Bruni mine, Bruni, Tex. (Wyoming Mineral Corporation): A mine that operated through the 1970s and 80s. Between 1975 and 1981, the state recorded 23 incidents of leachate spills. Between 1978 and 1981, the state also recorded four such spills of waste ponds on the mine surface or in shallow areas above the uranium deposit. The largest leak contaminated groundwater for a year before it was found and repaired. The state also found the company was improperly storing radioactive material. In 1977, the state tried to fine the company and eventually reached an out of court settlement of $42,500. After retiring the mine, the company struggled to return the groundwater to its pre-mine chemical composition, like many other ISL mining companies in Texas, requested that the state lower its groundwater standards.
General Response: The EPA reviewed the history of the Bruni Mine and noted that the site had a history of “leachate spills an excursions”; however, “Despite these scenarios, no significant contamination of local water supplies has been reported as a result of these excursions” (http://www.epa.gov/radiation/docs/tenorm/402-r-08-005-volii/402-r-08-005-v2.pdf, p. AIII-8). Powertech understands that the Bruni Mine was released by the State of Texas for unrestricted use.
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Regarding potential spills, Powertech has committed to employing state-of-the-art leak detection monitoring systems on pipelines with automated systems to shut down pumps in the event of a spill. These systems will be monitored 24 hours per day by trained operators. This will be accompanied by daily visual inspections of piping systems and equipment. Regarding groundwater restoration, Texas regulates ISR facilities differently than the NRC will regulate the Dewey-Burdock Project. In Texas, groundwater target restoration values historically have been set at the pre-mining average water quality, which means that roughly half of all sampled wells will exceed the target restoration values prior to mining (i.e., in a typical data set, about half of the values typically will be above the arithmetic average value). These target restoration values may be modified by a permit amendment if an operator demonstrates reasonable cause, typically including practicable effort and protection of public health and the environment. At the proposed Dewey-Burdock Project, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will regulate groundwater restoration. The federal requirements are to restore groundwater quality to a) pre-operational baseline water quality, b) federal drinking water standards, or c) an alternate concentration limit approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as protective of human health or the environment.
• Clay West and Burns mines, George West, Tex. (U.S. Steel): A pair of mines run by U.S. Steel from 1975. The state found workers were frequently exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. An inspection in 1980 found gamma radiation levels were so high they "pegged the meter" due to problems containing uranium dust in the plant loading area. The company would later discover that uranium fluid was leaking into the ground, saturating the soil around the plant, and coating its drainage field and septic tank in uranium. In 1985, the state discovered that workers for three companies in Corpus Christi were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation while repairing a machine for the company. Overall, due to pipe ruptures, the company reported more than 22 surface spills at the site, releasing an estimated 1,199,647 gallons of radioactive and toxic chemicals.
General Response: Powertech is unaware of any unsafe radiation levels for workers at modern ISR facilities. The detailed response below describes how NRC reviewed operating ISR facilities from 1994 through 2006 and concluded that the maximum doses to workers were less than 1/5th of the federal occupational dose limits.
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Powertech has committed to employing engineering controls such as ventilation systems and zero-emission vacuum dryers and administrative controls such as personal protective equipment and safe operating procedures to protect workers. Routine monitoring will be required to demonstrate that worker exposure is within occupational dose limits. Radiation safety will be enforced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC describes how radiation doses to workers at modern ISR facilities consistently have been under 20 percent of the federal exposure limits in the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Dewey-Burdock Project (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1910/s4/v1/, p. 4-179):
“The largest annual average dose to a worker at a uranium recovery facility a 10-year period [1994-2006] was 0.007 Sv [0.7 rem] [note: the occupational exposure limit is 5 rem per year, so this represents 14% of the occupational exposure limit]. More recently, the maximum total dose equivalents reported for 2005 and 2006 were 0.00675 and 0.00713 Sv [0.675 and 0.713 rem] [13.5% to 14.3% of the occupational exposure limit].”
• Mt Lucas mine, Dinero, Tex. (Everest Exploration): Everest Exploration was given permission to dispose of untreated radioactive wastewater by Lake Corpus Christi. Between 1984 and 1986, the company irrigated the waste on a 22 acre patch of land 300 yards from the lake. In 1987, radioactivity was 47 times above normal and six times higher than allowed by the company's operating license. The state found half of the irrigation water had percolated into the water table, potentially endangering surface and groundwater.
General Response: Powertech is unaware of what is meant by “radioactivity 47 times above normal and six times higher than allowed by the company’s operating license.” As described below, Powertech has committed, and will be required by federal and state license and permit conditions, to remove radionuclides from its wastewater prior to disposal.
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Powertech is not proposing to dispose untreated wastewater by irrigation or any other means and has committed to removing radionuclides from its wastewater prior to disposal by deep well injection (preferred option) or land application (secondary option). The wastewater generated by the Dewey-Burdock Project will be treated to meet federal standards for release to the environment. Powertech will extensively monitor the treated wastewater, groundwater, surface water, soil, vegetation, etc. associated with land application (if used). Operations will be adjusted based on monitoring results to avoid impacts to surface water or groundwater.
• Goliad exploration wells, Goliad County, Tex. (Uranium Energy Corp): Goliad County and two residents sued Uranium Energy Corp in 2008 after the company conducted exploratory drilling in the area. The lawsuit charged that the company drilled 70 exploratory bore holes but failed to close them properly, allowing storm runoff to flow into them and contaminate the county's groundwater. A group of residents say the well water in their area became slimy and discolored and only returned to normal after drilling stopped. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit and advised the county to pursue the matter through the state courts or a state administrative body. The county filed two new lawsuits this year, the first against the Texas Department of Environmental Quality for improper testing and analysis of groundwater, and the second against the Environmental Protection Agency for similar reasons.
General Response: Regarding the Goliad facility, Powertech understands that the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have reviewed the permit applications and have granted the necessary permits for the project to move forward. More specifically regarding the well plugging issue, the following presents the decision in a May 2010 hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) (http://www.soah.state.tx.us/pfdsearch/pfds/582%5C09%5C582-09-3064-pfd1.pdf, emphasis added):
“UEC‘s TRC [Texas Railroad Commission] NOV [Notice of Violation] was based mainly on: (1) failure to provide a physical marker for boreholes such as a stake rather than using GPS coordinates; (2) failure of UEC‘s drilling contractors to properly clean up cuttings and drilling mud at some boreholes; (3) failure to plug to within three feet of the surface (some too low and some too high); and (4) failure to plug or case some of the boreholes within the allotted time. Although the ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] is mindful that such violations are serious and should not be disregarded, he is equally concerned that they not be exaggerated. In this regard the ALJ finds it persuasive, as pointed out by the ED [Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] and UEC [the applicant], that the violations were promptly rectified to the satisfaction of the TRC; no enforcement orders were issued; and no penalties were assessed.”
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Powertech has committed to plugging its exploration holes in accordance with State of South Dakota requirements. This involves using cement or bentonite from the total depth of the hole to the surface. As has been done during Powertech’s exploration drilling in the proposed permit area, DENR will have an inspector present during exploration drilling to ensure that plugging requirements are met. Powertech is required to maintain records of all drilling and plugging procedures.
• Smith Ranch-Highland mine, Powder River Basin, Wyo. (Cameco Resources): Cameco, under a subsidiary called Power Resources, has been mining in the area since 1988. In 2007, the state discovered the company was violating its agreements to restore groundwater to pre-mining condition. The state also found that the company had experienced an "inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases" and that it was failing to detect, report and track spills as it should be. Including, that year alone, a surface spill of 3,700 gallons of fluid containing uranium and trace minerals (the company managed to recover 3,500 gallons). The company also spilled 11,600 gallons of disposal solution. In addition, the state found the company was only budgeting $40 million for reclamation when the state calculated it would cost $150 million. The company reached a $1.4 million settlement with the company over the permit violations and doubled its bond from $40 million to $80 million. Despite the settlement, the state has continued to find violations on a routine basis at the mine over the past five years. From September 2008, the state has fined the company a total of $88,000 for improperly capping drill holes, incorrectly reporting its capping practices, failing to perform certain groundwater tests, and operating outside its permit boundaries. In March this year, the state issued a violation for an excursion of lixiviant outside the mining area but has not issued a fine yet.
General Response: Powertech reviewed a 2008 Notice of Violation issued by Wyoming DEQ for the Smith Ranch facility (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML0821/ML082120177.pdf). The letter indicates that Power Resources “failed to conduct concurrent reclamation [groundwater restoration]” and noted this was a violation of Wyoming statutes and regulations. Powertech will be required by NRC license conditions to conduct reclamation immediately following uranium recovery in each well field. The 2008 Notice of Violation also noted that “spill detection, reporting, and follow-up protocols are not defined in the permits.” In contrast, Powertech will be required prior to operations to develop detailed spill response and cleanup plans. These requirements will be enforceable by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and DENR. The 2008 Notice of Violation also noted that groundwater restoration facilities were undersized at Smith Ranch. In contrast, Powertech has designed groundwater restoration facilities and associated treated wastewater disposal facilities for rapid groundwater restoration conducted immediately following uranium recovery in each well field. Powertech understands that as result of the 2008 Notice of Violation, the operator and Wyoming DEQ reached a settlement agreement in which the reclamation bond and groundwater restoration capacity were both increased and that, following successful resolution of the Notice of Violation, Wyoming DEQ has since authorized an increase in the production limit for this facility. Following are additional precautions related to groundwater restoration, spills, and financial assurance.
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Regarding restoring groundwater to pre-mining conditions, Powertech will be required by its NRC license and federal regulations to restore groundwater quality to a) pre-operational baseline water quality, b) federal drinking water standards, or c) an alternate concentration limit approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as protective of human health or the environment. NRC reviewed Powertech’s proposed groundwater restoration methods in the Safety Evaluation Report for the Dewey-Burdock Project (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1305/ML13052A182.pdf, p. 183) and concluded that “the applicant’s proposed groundwater restoration methods will effectively restore groundwater to the [federal] standards.”
Regarding potential spills, Powertech has committed and will be required by various permit and license conditions to test each buried pipeline for leakage prior to initial use. Each well also will be tested for leakage prior to use and routinely during its life. In addition, Powertech has committed to employing state-of-the-art leak detection monitoring systems on pipelines with automated systems to shut down pumps in the event of a spill. These systems will be monitored 24 hours per day by trained operators. This will be accompanied by daily visual inspections of piping systems and equipment. If a well field solution were to spill, Powertech would initiate spill response and cleanup plans and would notify the State of South Dakota and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission immediately. Spill response and cleanup would include actions such as automatic or manually shut down of the affected pipeline, surveying the spill area to determine the extent of required cleanup, evaluating potential impacts based on the quantity and type of solution spilled (note that some of the well field solutions such as the water injected into the well fields to recover the uranium and carry out groundwater restoration will not contain appreciable concentrations of uranium), and removing and disposing affected soil. It is very unlikely that a spill of well field solutions would reach Beaver Creek, which is the only perennial stream in the permit area, due to the distance between the planned well fields and the creek (typically several miles and 300-400 feet minimum). Powertech will be required to perform radiological surveys for the entire site during reclamation to ensure that it meets federal standards to release the site for unrestricted use. Special attention will be focused on spill areas, if any.
Regarding the cost of reclamation, the specific amount will be calculated and/or approved by various regulatory agencies prior to construction, including the NRC, DENR, EPA and BLM. A financial assurance instrument such as a cash bond will be posted prior to construction and will be updated at least annually to reflect the status of the project at that time (i.e., how many well fields are in production or have been successfully restored). Annual updates reviewed by various regulatory agencies along with NRC’s requirement to conduct groundwater restoration contemporaneously with uranium recovery will ensure that the financial assurance amount is sufficient to carry out reclamation.
• Crow Butte site, Crawford, Neb. (Cameco Resources): In 2008, a district court in Nebraska imposed a $50,000 penalty for violations including a surface spill and for constructing wells between 2003 and 2006 in an area that had the potential to contaminate underground drinking water, and waited for more than a month and half to tell the state when it realized it was mining where it shouldn't.
General Response: The May 23, 2008 Consent Decree explains the circumstances surrounding the penalties (available from http://www.deq.state.ne.us/Press.nsf/pages/Enforcement2008#Sec1.) It describes how Crow Butte Resources (CBR) “recycled its well development water as a conservation measure, rather than treating it as a waste stream and collecting and retaining such water in CBR’s lined evaporation ponds, contrary to the terms of its UIC permit. Such treatment of its well development water did not result in any pollution of either the surface of the ground or any aquifer thereunder. CBR discovered this process potentially violated the terms of its UIC permit … and self-reported it to the DEQ’s on-site inspector” (emphasis added). The violation was issued based on non-compliance with a permit condition and not on contamination of surface or groundwater. Crow Butte Resources subsequently discontinued the practice of recycling its well development water (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/commission/orders/2009/2009-09cli.pdf).
Reporting on this issue is available in a December 28, 2012 article in the Rapid City Journal (S.D. officials look to learn from Crow Butte mine), which cites Doug Pavlick, operations manager for the Crow Butte Operation, as saying that the problems resulting in the $50,000 fine never resulted in the detection of any drinking-water contamination
Precautions Taken by Powertech: Regarding well field expansion, Powertech will be required to conduct all operations within an affected area boundary that is inside the permit boundary and also within the aquifer exemption boundary approved by EPA. Prior to constructing each well field, Powertech will prepare a detailed report describing the well field location, detailed design, pre-operational water quality, and results of pumping tests that will be required to demonstrate confinement of the production zone and adequacy of monitoring systems. DENR will be provided with a copy of each of these reports as a requirement of the large scale mine permit.
• Kingsville Dome, Kleberg County, Tex. (Uranium Resources Inc): A hydrologist commissioned by Kleberg County released a report in 2006 on how groundwater was effected by the Kingsville Dome mine, which was opened by Uranium Resources Inc in 1988. Rice found that the water quality didn't meet drinking standards before mining began, but the quality had worsened in most of the site after mining and despite restoration efforts. While Rice found that no domestic wells had been effected by the contaminated water, he believed it could migrate outside of the mining boundaries if not properly restored.
General Response: To Powertech’s knowledge, no ISR facility in Texas or elsewhere has contaminated a domestic well. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulates the Kingsville Dome facility, and the operator will be required to demonstrate that there are no long-term impacts to public health or the environment in order to obtain State approval of groundwater restoration. Please refer to the final response in this document, which describes how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stated “…in over 30 years of in situ uranium mining at over 30 sites in Texas, there is no evidence that off-site groundwater has ever been contaminated due to in situ uranium mining.”