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That touch of uranium: Goliad County, UEC claim win in judge's ruling

By by Dianna Wray
Oct. 13, 2010 at 5:13 a.m.


BITS AND PIECESThe element uranium was discovered by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1785.

Uranium is a naturally occurring element that can be found in low levels within all rock, soil and water.

In Situ Recovery involves leaving ore (mineralized rock) in the ground and recovering the minerals from it by pumping the pregnant solution to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. Native groundwater is used for this process.

SOURCE: Environmental protection agency

Precinct 3 Goliad County Commissioner Jim Kreneck didn't know much about uranium mining a few years ago, but he knows a lot about it now, he says.

The Uranium Energy Corporation and Goliad County have been wrangling over whether UEC will start uranium mining in the area for almost four years.

They crept closer to a decision at the end of September, when a judge recommended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality allow for the submission of additional data about uranium mining at Goliad's In-Situ Recovery project before the UEC moves forward with any mining.

The following day, UEC issued a news release, declaring the judge's ruling a victory for the company.

Attorney Jim Blackburn, who represents Goliad County in the case, said it's a win for their side.

TCEQ representatives aren't saying anything.

The ruling in the case was made by Administrative Law Judge Richard Wilfong, who heard arguments over the UEC request for uranium mining permits last May in Austin.

After hearing arguments from representatives for Goliad County, UEC and the findings of TCEQ representatives during the hearing, the judge reviewed the final written arguments and then made his ruling, requesting more information.

Specifically, Wilfong requested that UEC perform a 24-hour pump test on the northwest fault.

In his decision, Wilfong outlined the requirements of the test, specifying it should be conducted on equipment known to be working and by people who know how to properly conduct the test.

The test is focused on finding out whether the northwest fault is sealed or transmissive.

However, as both sides wait to be put on the TCEQ agenda, it's unclear whether the test will ever be conducted.

Now that the proposal for ruling has been issued, the TCEQ will review Wilfong's recommendations and make a ruling on the permit during one of its bi-monthly meetings, Blackburn said.

The TCEQ commissioners will either grant the permit request, deny it or agree with the judge and send it back for a further hearing, Blackburn said.

UEC will only be required to run the pump test if the commissioners agree with Wilfong, requesting more information before they make a ruling, Blackburn said.

Despite how the judge's ruling can be interpreted, both sides claim they see it as a victory.

Blackburn said he believes the judge's ruling reflects his stance that there's a need for more information before making a decision.

"That's why Goliad County got involved in this in the first place. They felt like the right questions weren't being asked, and they need to be," Blackburn said.

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Jim Kreneck said he was encouraged by the judge's ruling, and he's optimistic that the state will order the test.

No matter how the TCEQ rules on the permit, Kreneck said Goliad County will continue to fight uranium mining in the area.

If the TCEQ grants the permit, Goliad County can appeal to either the district court or the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the mining.

Blackburn said they'll likely appeal to the EPA to protect the Evangeline Aquifer since it is used as a source of drinking water, Blackburn said.

"We're going as high as we can go. We will not stop with this until the last avenue is explored," Kreneck said.

UEC is optimistic.

"We've been trying to tell the public for the past three to four years that this can be done safely. I'm looking forward to getting started and working with the community to produce clean energy the country so badly needs," UEC chief operations officer Harry Anthony said.

If the TCEQ approves UEC's permit request in the next few months, things could get going pretty quickly in Goliad County, with production up and running within about six months, Anthony said.

But Anthony said he is cognizant of battles to overcome in the case.

"I've been doing this a long time. Uranium is just one of those panic words," Anthony said.

In the meantime, all either side can do is wait. TCEQ spokesperson Lisa Wheeler said the state agency cannot comment on an ongoing case.

Even if UEC is granted the permit, Anthony said he's well aware the protests may continue.

"The public can always challenge us. Have you ever heard of double jeopardy? This could be triple or quadruple jeopardy, but hopefully, once things get going, the opposition will get to know the people coming in with the company and get it's a good project and that there are no issues, and they'll focus their attention somewhere else," Anthony said.

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