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Hearing begins to decide future of uranium mining in Goliad County

By JJ VELASQUEZ
May 3, 2010 at 12:03 a.m.


EXEMPTED AQUIFER

An aquifer, or a portion of an aquifer, that meets the criteria for underground source drinking water, for which protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act has been waived by the Underground Injection Control Program.

Under 40 CFR Part 146.4, an aquifer may be exempted if it is not currently being used - and will not be used in the future - as a drinking water source, or it is not reasonably expected to supply a public water system due to a high total dissolved solids content.

Without an aquifer exemption, certain types of energy production, mining, or waste disposal into USDWs would be prohibited. EPA makes the final determination on granting all exemptions.

SOURCE: ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCYThe hearing will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the William P. Clements building, 300 W. 15th St., in Austin

AUSTIN - The legal battle over uranium mining in Goliad reached a pivotal point Monday.

Monday began a state contested case hearing that will play a factor in deciding whether Uranium Energy Corp. may mine uranium in Goliad County.

Three expert witnesses testified and cross-examined based on pre-trial written testimonies.

Bill Galloway, a geologist and professor at the University of Texas, was called by UEC's legal team.

Arsenic, lead and uranium are elements commonly present in an ore body, such as the uranium-rich deposits that UEC intends to mine.

In his pre-trial testimony, Galloway said he expected the groundwater quality in Goliad to be compromised by uranium mining operations.

"I used the word 'compromise' with considerable forethought," he said, when asked by Goliad County's representation about his word choice during the hearing.

He used "qualitative," rather than quantitative terms to describe the risk involved in mining uranium from groundwater resources, he said.

Galloway does not have expertise in hydrology or hydrochemistry, both important fields in water quality testing.

Water quality experts are expected to testify later in the hearing.

"The point I'm making is where you have concentrations of uranium, you have several caution flags," Galloway said.

UEC is proposing to mine from the Evangeline Aquifer, from which Goliad County gets its drinking water.

UEC's chief operating officer, Harry Anthony, sealed many of the documents submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the mining site's approval. Anthony was absent from Monday's hearing.

Bob Underdown, vice president of production for the company, also testified.

Underdown said the Goliad project is the fourth mining site he has worked on.

In all three of his previous projects, he asked for an amendment to exceed the baseline uranium levels in the drinking water, he said during his oral testimony.

Goliad County claims the company contaminated its drinking water when it failed to properly plug many of its 1,100 exploratory wells.

Under Environmental Protection Agency regulations, exploratory wells are supposed to be plugged within 48 hours of their completion.

"What part of 48 hours to the closure of a well is difficult?" asked Jim Blackburn, who represents Goliad County in the case.

UEC's team objected because the exploratory wells were drilled before Underdown's time with the company.

In September, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality completed draft permits that would allow the energy company to build two wells.

The county claims that issuing the company a permit to mine would violate the Texas Administrative Procedure Act, Blackburn said.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will grant or deny the permit to mine.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality may choose to override his decision.

The site recommend or not recommend that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issue a permit to allow Uranium Energy Corp. to mine uranium in Goliad County.

Uranium Energy Corp. would then await a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency on whether it will grant an aquifer exemption. Mining from aquifers in use is prohibited by federal law.

About 25 people from Goliad and the area attended the hearing to show support for the county's legal fight.

Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, of Cuero, said she attended in the stead of those who are affected but didn't have the resources to make it to Austin.

"I'm concerned generally about environmental concerns," she said, "but I'm also concerned for those who have no voice and are going to be impacted."

Goliad County Commissioner Jim Kreneck said he thought the day's proceedings went well.

"Our lawyers presented a good side," he said.

Kreneck hopes that at the conclusion of the hearing, the judge denies UEC's request for a permit.

Kreneck and the county have waged a legal battle against UEC since 2008 because of its implications for Goliad's economy, he said.

"That would be one of the biggest economic disasters to hit Goliad if they grant this permit," he said. "It could be very detrimental to Goliad County. We are already feeling the effects of it."

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