Tag Archives: uranium

The Curse of the Yellow Powder

A juniper tree on Navajo land in New Mexico overlooks a pile of waste rock from an abandoned uranium mine subject to an ongoing clean-up effort.

Is it possible to restore a landscape damaged by uranium? Ask the Navajo in New Mexico.

by Rose Jenkins

This fall, near Teddy Nez’s house on the Navajo reservation near Gallup, N.M., men in earth-moving equipment were scraping away the topsoil, up to three feet deep, which had been contaminated by radioactivity from abandoned uranium mines. In earlier phases of this project, starting in 2007, crews had torn out 100-year-old junipers and piñon pines and had clawed earth away from the remaining trees, which weakened them, even after replacement soil was trucked in. The machines had flayed hillsides, whose cover of flowering shrubs and fragrant herbs has yet to grow back. “It looks like a B-52 hit it,” Nez told me, recalling an image from his service in Vietnam.

On our way to his house, Nez pointed out a notch in a bank of yellow grassland at the head of an arroyo. That’s where the Church Rock uranium mill tailings dam broke in 1979, releasing over 1,000 tons of radioactive wastes and millions of gallons of highly acidic water into the Puerco River, an intermittent stream that flows toward the Colorado River. The Church Rock dam failure was the largest radioactive release in U.S. history, by volume — larger than the Three Mile Island disaster the same year.

Teddy Nez

Teddy Nez, shown here at his house, believes that  decades of exposure to contamination from two nearby uranium mines made him and his family sick.

Nez’s house was upstream of the breached dam but the ground around it was contaminated by dust drifting off of the mountainous piles of waste rock from two nearby uranium mines, which have been out of production for almost 30 years. Nez believes that the continuous exposure has made him and his family sick. His whole family suffers from respiratory problems, he says — himself, his five children, and his seven grandchildren.

For years, he and his neighbors fought for a clean-up, he says, but nothing happened. Finally, in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed them that their situation was an emergency. Radiation levels at Nez’s home measured up to ten times higher than normal background levels for the area.

Nez recounts, “The U.S. EPA says due to the human risk factor, get the people out. And they tell us, we’re going to move you out permanently, relocate you permanently. We say no. And the reason we’re saying no is… our culture, tradition. Our grandma and grandpa, they were here. So we don’t want to leave that land.”

The Navajo had been forced off of this land once before, when they were marched into exile by Kit Carson’s troops in 1864. Four years later, the tribe regained a portion of its homeland. Although many people had died, and their homes, livestock, fields, and orchards were destroyed, the Navajo returned to start over in the land between their four sacred mountains. Now, Nez and his community were unwilling to abandon their land. Clean it up, they demanded.

But what I saw in Navajo country made me wonder how much you can really clean up after uranium, if contaminants get into the soil, the water, the air, the plants, the animals.

I was particularly interested because of the debate over allowing uranium mining and milling (processing) in Virginia, my home state. Obviously, the circumstances are very different. Uranium was dug out of Navajo lands starting in the 1940s, in the rush to build the first atomic weapons and then to build up a Cold War arsenal. Virtually no effort was made to protect workers, the environment, or the community — although radiation was known to be dangerous. The tragedies endured by the Navajo resulted from uranium operations using crude, out-of-date methods, with little regard for human life or health. Times have changed.

Still, it’s worth noting what uranium can do to a landscape, what we can fix, and what we can’t. Read more.

After a Town Is Buried, Controversy Still Rages

Uravan, Colo., and its radioactive contamination have been buried and fenced off.

In Colorado and Virginia residents debate whether proposed uranium mills will help or hinder their economies.

by Rose Jenkins

To reach the place where an entire town had been dismantled and buried in a Superfund cleanup, I traveled through coils of red rock canyons—sheer cliffs that enclosed the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers in southwest Colorado. My guide, Jennifer Thurston, who directs of a mining watchdog group called INFORM Colorado, told me that the tops of these mesas are dotted with old uranium mines—mines that once fed ore to the mill at Uravan.

Rough gravel roads took us to the spot on the San Miguel River where the town of Uravan used to be, the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state of Colorado determined the town to be so contaminated that it was unsafe for people to live there. The town, which was home to over 600 people, was evacuated as part of a Superfund cleanup spanning 1986 to 2008. Then every structure—the mill, schools, houses, playgrounds—was torn down, shredded, and buried. Today, the site is off-limits, barricaded by barbed wire fences and yellow signs that warn of radioactive exposure.

Uravan was a company town, named for two minerals that are found together in the ore here—uranium, which is used to make nuclear fuel, and vanadium, which is used to harden steel. Because nearly every family that lived in the town worked at the mines or the mill, nearly all of the residents were struck a personal blow by the epidemic of lung cancer that took place among the miners.

During the last uranium boom—roughly from the 1940s through the 1970s—miners labored in poorly ventilated tunnels that trapped radon from the radioactive ore and diesel exhaust from their machinery. In addition, cigarette smoking in the mine shafts was widespread. Many of the men who worked in these conditions died of lung disease, and others struggle with it still.
But when I asked Bill Chadd, who mined uranium for twelve years, lived in Uravan for ten, and suffers from lung disease, if he thought that a proposed new uranium mill would be good for the area, he said, “You bet.”

Over breakfast in the lobby of The Ray Motel in Naturita, Colo., near the former town of Uravan, he told me, “It would open up about 300 jobs.”

Energy Fuels Inc., has proposed to build a new mill, the Piñon Ridge Mill, less than 10 miles from Uravan. On the other side of the country, a company called Virginia Uranium, LLC proposes to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—my home state.

Uranium has never been extracted in Virginia, but communities in the West have a long history with uranium mining. I have been researching their stories, so Virginians can learn from their experience.

In southwest Colorado I found that the people whose lives were most intertwined with the uranium industry—those who had benefited most directly from its jobs and suffered most intensely from its mistakes—were most ready to give it another go.

Other people, who live and work at a greater remove from the industry, in towns that are prospering without it, see the Piñon Ridge Mill as unacceptably risky. They consider the proposed mill an environmental and public health threat, and they also think that it could derail economic growth in the region. Thurston, who lives in Telluride, Colo., some 50 miles from the Piñon Ridge site, told me, “A uranium mill, in reality, is a radioactive waste dump. The stigma of having radioactive facilities in your community makes it more difficult to attract people.” Read more.

The Poisoned Well

What can a Superfund site in Colorado tell us about potential uranium mining and milling in Virginia?

by Rose Jenkins

Sharyn Cunningham. Photo credit: Rose Jenkins.

Sharyn Cunningham and her family drank from a poisoned well for eight years. When they bought property in Cañon City, Colo., in 1994, they had their two wells tested—but just for normal water quality issues, not for radioactivity or heavy metals. They didn’t know that the groundwater below their home had been infiltrated by toxic waste from the Cotter Corporation’s uranium mill on the edge of town.

“There were a lot of people using their wells,” she told me. “I never thought about uranium.”

I was in Cañon City on the first of a series of stops of visits to communities in the West that have experience with the uranium industry. My purpose was to inform the debate over whether to allow uranium mining and milling in my home state of Virginia. In stories like Cunningham’s, there may be important lessons learned that Virginians should take to heart.

The history of the uranium mill, or processing plant, in Cañon City can be recounted as one failure after another in containing hazardous wastes. Early on, in the 1950s, the Cotter Corporation simply dumped mine tailings—the dirt and rock remaining after concentrated “yellowcake” is extracted from uranium ore—on the ground. During heavy rains, a toxic flood washed into the neighborhoods below. In 1971, Fremont County constructed an earthen dam to stop flooding, but contaminated water seeped through, underground. Later, the company built a wall with technology to filter out contaminants, but the filter clogged. Today, water that flows downhill from the site is pumped back into impoundment ponds.

But the tailings may still be releasing unseen contaminants into the groundwater. The piles were moved into huge pits equipped with a rubber liner, in 1979. But a series of recent studies indicates that the lined pits are leaking or are likely to leak.

In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the Cotter Mill site and the adjacent Lincoln Park neighborhood a Superfund site. But when Cunningham bought her home in Lincoln Park ten years later, she didn’t know that. She never thought about Cotter until 2002, she says, when the company announced a plan to import and store toxic waste from other parts of the country, starting with almost half a million tons of contaminated earth shipped out of New Jersey. In response, she helped to found the grassroots group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT). When the CCAT board met with a representative from the state health department, she learned for the first time that her well posed a health hazard.

“He said, ‘Well, nobody’s using their wells in Lincoln Park,’” Cunningham recalls. “And I raised my hand and said, ‘Um… we are.’ And he kind of freaked out.”

In the years that followed, hundreds of area residents who got sick—with cancers, bone diseases, kidney diseases, autoimmune diseases, and other problems—filed class action lawsuits. After years in court, they won settlements, although the company did not admit any fault.

Cunningham believes that her family’s health was also harmed, but she stayed out of the lawsuits—focusing instead on forcing the company to stop poisoning the ground, air, and water of Cañon City.

CCAT’s citizen activists succeeded in stopping the Cotter Corporation from importing hazardous wastes—materials so toxic that it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the places they came from to get rid of them.

As Cunningham describes it, elected officials assumed that public opinion would be evenly split between people who opposed the import plan on grounds of public health and people who supported it on grounds of economic development. Instead, CCAT rallied an overwhelming consensus against it. In a community of about 18,000, the organization gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan, including many business owners, health care workers, and educators. In 2005, the state denied the permit. CCAT went on to successfully advocate for three state laws affecting the uranium mill.

Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, feels that the public has been left out of the plan for cleaning up the Cotter uranium mill, where tailings ponds are being filled in with earth. Photo credit: Rose Jenkins.

Read more.

Studying the Study Group

Maureen Matsen, deputy secretary of natural resources, and Martin Kent, governor's chief of staff.

by James A. Bacon

The McDonnell administration hosted a hastily assembled meeting yesterday to address, in the words Deputy Sectretary of Natural Resources Maureen Matsen, the “perceived lack of transparency in the conduct of [the] Uranium Working Group.” The meeting was attended by a couple dozen stakeholders, administration officials and members of the press.

If the goal was to appease critics of the governor’s working group, however, the meeting fell flat. The late-afternoon meeting lasted less than an hour, administration officials made few tangible promises, and uranium mining foes said their concerns about openness and transparency remain unresolved.

“They’re trying their best but there’s definitely an arm’s-length [feeling] here,” said Mae Fox, a lobbyist representing the Virginia Coalition, a group of Southside business interests worried by the stigma that uranium mining might give the region.

“It was a very abbreviated meeting,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “Some of the answers made me feel a little more comfortable [but only] about 30% of the issues got thrown on the table. … How much real discussion can  you have with that many parties at the table for an hour?”

A press release from the Roanoke River Basin Association characterized the meeting as a “damage control PR” session called in response to critical articles and op-eds in the media. The RRBA never received an invitation to the meeting.  “It is apparent that local citizen groups are being excluded from the discussion. We and many other citizen groups in Southside Virginia and North Carolina are at the ground zero,” said Gene Addesso, RRBA vice president.

McDonnell established the Uranium Working Group (UWG) in January after deciding not to pursue legislation in the 2011 General Assembly session to lift the ban on uranium mining in the state. The group is comprised of staff from the Departments Environmental Quality (DEQ), Health (VDH) and Mines Minerals and Energy (DMME) and supported by outside consultants. Its purpose is to address 18 issues regarding uranium mining safety and regulation listed in a governor’s directive.

According to the UWG’s website, the group will make “regular reports of its progress” at meetings of the Uranium Subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission. The four meetings, which will be open to public comment, will address mine permitting issues, water quality, tailings storage, workers health and other issues.

The purpose of the group is to find answers to questions left unanswered by a National Academy Sciences study and to develop a “conceptual statutory and regulatory framework” to assist the General Assembly in making “well informed policy decisions in the future.”

“This is not a rule-making process,” stressed Matsen at the meeting. “It’s just the executive branch trying to bring resources to bear on the issue.” She said the group would make its deliberations “as open and transparent as possible.”

Cathie France, head of the Uranium Working Group

Cathie France, deputy director for energy policy at DMME and a key staff member of the UWG, said the group’s first question would be: can uranium be mined safely? The group will examine a wide range of data bearing on the short-range and long-range impact. The group would be receptive “to any data you’d like us to consider,” she said.

Interested parties can suggest “anything you want us to look at” by submitting it on the UWG website, said Matsen. “The intent is to get more [information] rather than less,” added Martin Kent, McDonnell’s chief of staff.

Concrete ideas for making the process more transparent included maintaining a ListServ for the purpose of communicating information to stakeholders and posting transcripts of meetings online. “We’ll try to find ways to make [them] accessible statewide,” Kent said.

While those suggestions would improve the administration’s communications to the public, some attendees wanted to ensure that the public had ample opportunity to communicate to the administration.

“The task is going to be huge,” said Fox with the Virginia Coalition. A large number of people are very riled up, she said. She expects public meetings in the Danville/Pittsylvania area, where the Coles Hill uranium deposit is located, will generate broad participation. People are going to want to have their say, and meeting organizers need to ensure that there will be enough time to hear them.

Fox also wants to ensure that stakeholders receive UWG reports in a timely fashion. “It’s difficult to comment on something you’ve just heard. … Is there any chance of seeing materials in advance?”

Holmes, with the Piedmont Environmental Council, has even more fundamental concerns. Citing the information surfaced by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the Charlottesville Bypass controversy, he said he wants to be assured that the UWG will be subject to FOIA and not exempted as “governor’s working papers.”

The UWG’s final report will be issued December 1, Holmes said. “It’s hard to look at that abbreviated timeline and not be concerned that it’s a set-up for the 2013 legislature.”

This article was made possible by a Piedmont Environmental Council sponsorship.