Despite what appears to be a growing number of Republican leaders who can't pronounce the word, nuclear power is on the rise in Texas and nationwide. Eight new reactors have been proposed around the state, adding to the four already in operation. Nukes are touted as a clean and carbon-free source of electricity, but aside from the unresolved problem of handling their toxic waste and the plants' voracious use of water, Texans are increasingly up in arms over groundwater pollution linked to the mining of uranium used to fuel the reactors.
In a press conference at the state Capitol last week, a group of South Texas residents who live near former and proposed uranium-mining sites called for strengthened rules to protect water quality. The group, the Alliance of Texans for Uranium Research and Action, presented a report by Austin-based Southwest Groundwater Consulting, which found that the uranium-mining industry in Texas has historically failed to restore water quality to premining levels, while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has routinely relaxed water-quality standards by failing to enforce initial requirements and by weakening restoration levels.
According to an ALTURA press release, "Before mining begins, the uranium exploration process disturbs the aquifer, rendering surrounding drinking water wells unusable." Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District staffer Art Dohmann, a member of the county-appointed Uranium Research Advisory Committee, said that since exploratory drilling began in 2006, "we have had a continuation of problems with the same wells, and additional wells have started to have problems that have never had problems before."
Last year, some Goliad-area residents reported clogged, radioactively contaminated wells following exploration drilling. Three nearby wells were said to contain high concentrations of radium-226, a radioactive carcinogen. Dohmann explained that the mining and restoration process "withdraws large amounts of groundwater, a percentage of which is contaminated and must be disposed of in deep injection wells. One small mining area will dispose of billions of gallons of water from start to finish." At the end of the process, ALTURA argues, TCEQ allows uranium-mining companies to amend and lessen their cleanup levels.
Uranium Energy Corp. took over decades-old uranium exploration operations in Goliad Co. in late 2004 and plans to open a uranium mine there by early 2010. They deny that their test wells have contaminated groundwater, noting that no violations were issued following a Texas Railroad Commission investigation last year. They were, however, issued a violation in March 2007 for "incorrectly marking and plugging exploratory boreholes," according to the Railroad Commission. In a pending federal lawsuit against Uranium Energy Corp., locals allege that storm water seeped into the open wells and contaminated groundwater. TCEQ issued the corporation a draft mining permit this June for the site, which must still undergo technical review. According to the Railroad Commission, which regulates uranium exploration, 17 active exploration permits are in effect statewide. There are currently four active uranium mines, according to TCEQ. One additional new draft mining permit has been issued to South Texas Mining Ventures in Duval County.
The Lone Star Sierra Club has joined ALTURA in calls for uranium-mining reform. Citing poor coordination between the three organizations overseeing mining – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Railroad Commission, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – Conservation Director Cyrus Reed said, "It's time to put a stop to uranium mining until we have one agency charged with regulating this activity, until we have true baseline testing before exploration, and no get-out-of-jail-free card through continual amendments to the restoration standards." For more information and to read Southwest Groundwater Consulting's full report, see www.uraniuminfo.org and www.uraniumenergy.com.
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