Larimer County Environmental Advisory Board issues uranium mining report
Twenty-page document describes potential risks from in situ leach and open pit mines
Posted February 13, 2008
Acting on a request from the Larimer County commissioners, the county's Environmental Advisory Board reviewed scientific papers and government reports on uranium mining and drafted a 20-page report which it approved unanimously and released Tuesday evening. The report, while omitting a few important details regarding in situ leaching (ISL), is a good faith effort by members of the board to describe the potential environmental and human health risks associated with ISL and open pit uranium mining.
The report stops short of recommending that the commissioners take a position on this issue because, in the board's opinion, Powertech has not released enough details of the project to adequately assess the risks.
The report does not address the fact that the proposed uranium mining would be only three miles from the county line, six miles from the city limits of Fort Collins, and a mere eleven miles from Fort Collins' historic Old Town district.
In addition, the report is unclear about the fact that Powertech wants to conduct ISL mining in the same aquifer used for drinking water by numerous residents of the area. Other topics are mentioned briefly or not at all, including the injection of chemical reducing agents, emerging bacterial restoration techniques, mechanical well failure, long-term excursions of mining solutions, and the common practice by regulators of relaxing groundwater standards when restoration efforts fail to bring radionuclides and heavy metals back to pre-mining baseline levels.
Excerpts from the report:
A number of risks are identified with ISL operations. The environmental impact of these risks can affect the soil, air and water of the region. Water contamination is the most serious risk posed by ISL operations. The probabilities of any of these risks at a proposed site in Colorado remain unknown. Without baseline information regarding the operation geology and water quality, the EAB is unable to determine the chances that Larimer County will be adversely affected by the operation. There is a probability that the quality of ground water which supplies rural residences and agricultural businesses can be adversely affected...
Open pit mining operations present higher risks to the environment than ISL operations with the potential for serious land degradation and surface and ground water contamination as well as health impacts to mine workers, nearby residents and the ecosystem in whole...
Although the current permitting and regulation processes are extensive and requires monies to be set aside for remediation of any environmental damage, the end result is that the risks to the mining operators are strictly financial while the risks to the community are potentially financial, health and environmental with costs that may exceed any capabilities of the operations to rectify.
The effects of such operations, even if they have a relatively low risk of environmental degradation can damage the socioeconomic structure of the region. It is unclear what the short term or long term effects to the communities both socially and economically will be. Economic effects are not necessarily based on rational processes and can impact the region on a larger scale than the actual mining operations.
It is often the standard that entities other than the principle operators must show that harm will result in order for permitting to be halted. Given the seriousness of the potential risks (many of which appear to have low probabilities of occurring), the board would expect that those proposing the mining operation, provide a reasoned and scientifically based risk assessment of the operations as well as the risks of not mining, making public all data collected. The risks and the ability of the mine operator and local governments to address these risks should be weighed against the benefits that may be derived.
...Due to the nature of ISL mining, quite large volumes of wastewater are created, which are often highly saline and contain toxic levels of heavy metals, process chemicals, and radionuclides. Excess ISL process water that is not re-injected is typically either directed to an evaporation pond, or injected into a deep disposal well to an aquifer below the uranium deposit and domestic aquifers...
...Analysis of groundwater for quality assessment after stabilization from the Crow Butte, Wyoming ISL revealed minor to moderate increases in concentrations of 13 of 33 contaminants and parameters evaluated including: alkalinity, arsenic, bicarbonate, calcium, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, nitrate and nitrite, potassium, radium 226, uranium, and vanadium...
...Surface spills from mining operations may also be a source of contamination of groundwater. For example, in the period from December 1999 to August 2007, the Smith Ranch ISL in Wyoming reported 37 spills or leaks with an average spill volume of 6,040 gallons. It may be possible that contaminated water percolates downward and may contaminate groundwater in non-site shallow aquifers used for human consumption or food production...
...The ecosystem in and around the ISL operations can be influenced by contamination from the operations. As with the agricultural processes, bioaccumulation of contaminants can increase as the minerals and radionuclides move through the food web...
...Ground and surface water can be pumped out of the region of the open-pit mine to facilitate access to the ore. After the mining is complete, the pumping is stopped and the pit can refill with ground and surface water. The mine water can be contaminated with metals, radioactive elements and dissolved solids. In some instances, the ground water takes on the chemical characteristics of the mine dewatering effluent. Mine water pumped out of the mine can be high in radionuclides and other metals...
...Greater volumes of airborne contaminants can occur with open pit mines with respect to ISL operations. The excavation processes, movement of heavy equipment, wind dispersion of overburden can create fugitive dust. This dust can contain heavy metals and other toxics...
...Mining operations carry with them the potential for significant environmental impacts. Water, soil and air contamination are all possible with the operations that may be conducted in Weld County. The probabilities associated with these impacts are not presently known. In the absence of sound scientific data, an acceptable risk assessment is not currently possible. Without a risk assessment, detailed project descriptions, or access to baseline data the EAB is unable to make recommendations regarding the Centennial Project at this time.
The effects of the Centennial Project extend beyond environmental impacts. There are potential public health and economic impacts as well. The economic impacts of the project may not be tied to actual risks but perceptions. In this case, regardless of the risks, the project may have a negative impact to the region. Other economic impacts may include additional jobs and tax revenue for the duration of the mining operations.
It is often the standard that entities other than the principle operators must show that harm will result in order for permitting to be halted. This approach, however, presupposes that the action is "innocent of harm until proven guilty" and places the burden of proof on those who usually have fewer resources to make their case. Given the seriousness of the potential risks (many of which appear to have low probabilities of occurring), the board would expect that those proposing the mining operation will provide the public with all of the data which they possess that could have any relevancy to the matter at hand and then use these data to propose a reasoned and scientifically based risk assessment of the operations. Without meeting this standard, it is impossible for the Board or the public to provide their informed consent or for the outcome to represent a just resolution. The risks (environmental, economic, health, and social) and the ability of the mine operator and local governments to avoid or mitigate these risks should be weighed against the benefits that may be derived from such an operation when determining whether the mine is acceptable for the region.
Report on In Situ Leach and Open-Pit Mining - Prepared for the Larimer County Commissioners
Larimer County Environmental Advisory Board - February 12, 2008 (pdf)
Report offers no recommendations on mining
Northern Colorado Business Report - February 14, 2008