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TCEQ approves UEC uranium mining permit

By by Dianna Wray
Dec. 14, 2010 at 6:14 a.m.

"Save Our Drinking Water" read a button worn during the meeting.

WHAT'S NEXTUEC has to submit a written application to the state by Dec. 28.

All parties will have the chance to comment on it until Jan. 11

The final application is due Jan. 25.

AUSTIN - After four years of wrangling, Uranium Energy Corp. is closer to mining uranium in Goliad County.

On Tuesday morning, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to approve UEC's Underground Injection Proposal permit application to mine uranium in Goliad County.

UEC and Goliad County have grappled over whether the company will build a uranium mining facility in the area for the past four years.

Many Goliad residents oppose the operation over concern about the impact in-situ uranium mining will have on the Evangeline Aquifer and the groundwater in the area.

UEC maintains that the mining is safe.

More than 50 Goliad representatives attended the hearing on Tuesday, many of them arriving by chartered bus.

Piling off of the bus on Tuesday morning, representatives of Goliad County were trying to remain optimistic, Goliad County Farm Bureau president Pat Calhoun said.

The commission heard statements from those present before making its ruling.

UEC was represented by lawyer Monica Jacobs.

Jacobs urged the commission to approve the company's application.

"This is still a state where we allow people to recover energy resources if you follow the rules," Jacobs said, noting that UEC had met all of TCEQ's application requirements.

Jim Blackburn, the lawyer representing Goliad County, asked the commissioners to deny the permit.

Blackburn said UEC had not followed the rules.

"The applicants knew the rules. The applicants failed by the rules and ... you have a duty to turn down their permit," Blackburn said.

The commission intently questioned Administrative Law Judge Richard Wilfong during the hearing.

By granting the permit, commissioners disregarded Wilfong's request for a 24-hour pump test on the northwest fault to determine whether the fault is sealed or might be able to transmit any mining byproducts into the water supply.

Wilfong requested more information after issuing his review of UEC's uranium mining permit applications in September.

Wilfong told the commission he requested the pump test because of concern about the possibility of contaminating the groundwater.

TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw noted that the issues over groundwater were not a point of concern.

Shaw also noted concern over whether the northwest fault might be able to transmit uranium mining byproducts into the water supply was not yet a point of concern.

Now that the TCEQ has granted the permit application, UEC has to submit a written application.

Normally, the process would have stopped with this hearing, TCEQ lawyer Shana Horton said, but the written application is being required because Wilfong did not recommend a proposal for decision when he released his ruling in September.

The commission ordered UEC to draft an initial proposal to be submitted by Dec. 28. Each party will then have an opportunity to comment on the application by Jan. 11. The final application will be submitted Jan. 25.

UEC representatives looked satisfied and Goliad County residents seemed to droop as TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw announced the commission's decision.

"I feel like those people had made up their minds before they got there. They aren't representing the people they are supposed to be representing," Goliad resident John Caldwell said.

Blackburn said he wasn't surprised when the TCEQ voted to approve UEC's permit application, noting that the commission has never denied a permit of this kind.

After the commissioners had ruled, Blackburn stood before the Goliad representatives outside the building, encouraging them.

"We're going to the Environmental Protection Agency. If the people and the county are willing to go forward with this, I'm going to help them," Blackburn said.

Precinct 3 Goliad County Commissioner Jim Kreneck said he was disappointed in the ruling.

"It feels terrible. I feel like they made this deal a week ago. It's all about the funding. Eight-five percent of TCEQ's funding comes from these permits. They've never denied one of these permits, so why should they stop now," Kreneck said.

UEC Chief Operating Officer Harry Anthony said he was thrilled with TCEQ's ruling.

"We are grateful that the TCEQ recognizes that uranium is a safe, viable and clean energy source. Uranium production and nuclear power are an essential part of our country's overall energy policy, and the Goliad project is a vital part of that effort."

The company plans to start building uranium mining facilities sometime during the first quarter of next year.

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