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EPA does not certify Goliad uranium mining project

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
May 18, 2012 at 12:18 a.m.
Updated May 19, 2012 at 12:19 a.m.


More than a year after the state granted UEC an aquifer exemption, the Environmental Protection Agency has declined to certify it.

Opponents to uranium mining in Goliad are claiming a victory, but the Uranium Energy Corp. does not concur.

The federal regulatory agency issued a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and UEC on Wednesday, saying the aquifer exemption would not be certified until UEC has proven the water used to mine uranium would not become drinking water.

The EPA Region 6 office denied the exemption under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects all underground sources of drinking water from pollution.

Goliad residents have been battling UEC's proposed uranium mining site being located in their county for the past five years.

The TCEQ has sided with the company throughout the process.

This marks the residents' first success in the fight.

"This is a major victory for Goliad County. This is what we have been arguing for years and we have finally gotten the attention of a regulatory agency that cares about the people and groundwater," Goliad County Commissioner Jim Kreneck said in a news release.

This development comes more than a year after the TCEQ voted to approve UEC's permit application, effectively ignoring the recommendations of Administrative Law Judge Richard Wilfong, who had advised the commissioners to require a pump test on the site before approving the permit.

"This is an important decision. The EPA recognized that the groundwater resources of Goliad County were too important to allow them to be degraded. There are better locations for uranium mining in Texas that do not pose this type of risk to groundwater resources. This site is just too close to water wells that are being used," Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing Goliad's case, said in a release.

UEC is undeterred by this development.

UEC Chief Operating Officer Harry Anthony stated that the letter issued by the EPA's Region 6 office was not a rejection of their application for an aquifer exemption, but simply part of the ongoing process to get the exemption certified.

"The Goliad Project remains a fully permitted project by the TCEQ and the aquifer exemption has been granted by the state of Texas," Anthony said in a new release. "UEC will continue to invest in uranium mining because it makes good financial sense and because development of domestic sources of uranium is critical to our national energy security."

A statement issued by the TCEQ said that there is nothing in the EPA's internal guidance to justify the EPA's actions. The federal agency is interfering with a process that was previously delegated to the state agency, according to the statement.

"The TCEQ remains committed to this EPA delegated program and believes our permits and authorizations protect the underground sources of drinking water in this area as contemplated in the Safe Drinking Water Act," the release stated.

In Texas, uranium is collected through in-situ mining, a process where oxygenated water is pumped into an aquifer to unlock the uranium. The resin collected in Goliad will be sent to UEC's Hobson plant to be turned into yellowcake, a substance that will be turned into fuel for nuclear reactors.

Goliad residents are concerned about the effect in-situ mining techniques will have on the Evangeline Aquifer and the groundwater in the area.

UEC representatives insist the mining technique is safe.

Adam Friedman, a lawyer representing Goliad County who opposes uranium mining in the county, said county officials are pleased with the EPA decision, but are still cautiously optimistic.

"The EPA has left the decision open and put the ball back in UEC and TCEQ's court to come back with some demonstrations proving that domestic water wells do not get their water supply from the proposed exemption area," Friedman said.

He said EPA representatives have met with UEC and TCEQ and talked about how this demonstration can be made. They will have to prove that water from the aquifer being mined will not migrate to working wells during the average lifetime of a water well, which is about 75 years.

Friedman said possible contamination of drinking water wells has been the focus of the case because it stands to directly impact people.

"Right now, the vast majority and focus is on that issue, because that's the most imminent fear for public health," he said. "If this water is serving as a source of water allowing the exemption, those using the drinking water wells are the first group of people to be endangered by it, so it's the first thing that needs to be addressed."

Even if this issue is resolved with the aquifer, Friedman noted that there are other issues that will need to be addressed before the aquifer exemption can be approved, including whether the water in the aquifer could be used as a source of drinking water in the future.

Art Dohman, president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District, said protecting the groundwater that sustains Goliad County was priority and that he is sure both agencies are going to do that.

"That is certainly our mission, and the Groundwater Conservation District looks forward to working with both agencies on this effort," he said.

"It is refreshing to see a governmental agency operate with the public interest in mind," County Commissioner Ted Long said in a release issued Friday.

Ginger Cook, a Goliad resident who has been working against UEC, echoed his statement.

"Finally, someone in the government has heard us. You begin to wonder if anyone is concerned about protecting citizens."

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