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Professor: Drinking water likely safe from uranium contamination

JJ VELASQUEZ

By JJ VELASQUEZ
May 6, 2010 at 12:06 a.m.

AUSTIN - A geology professor testified Thursday that mining fluids would not likely seep into drinking water sources at a proposed site for uranium mining in Goliad.

Philip Bennett, who specializes in transport of particles in groundwater, stuck to testimony he gave before the state contested case hearing that no evidence suggests potentially harmful particles used during drilling would migrate into sources of drinking water.

The hearing will play a factor in deciding whether Uranium Energy Corp. may mine uranium in Goliad.

In areas ripe for uranium mining, groundwater quality is below drinking water quality, he said.

The aquifers that surround uranium-rich deposits, such as the ones UEC is proposing to mine, are not fit for consumption by humans or animals, Bennett said.

The groundwater there can be used only for industrial purposes.

Uranium is mined through the injection of oxygen, which makes it easier to extract.

It is possible for drilling fluids, which mix with uranium as it is being mined, to migrate and contaminate drinking water.

But the thick clay formations that encase the aquifers protect sources of drinking water from contamination, Bennett said.

"These clays are continuous and extensive throughout the mine permit area and are extremely effective in containing fluids," he wrote in pre-trial testimony.

Because he was called as an expert witness for the case, Bennett reviewed the permit application documents submitted by UEC to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

He drew the conclusion that drilling fluids would not likely contaminate drinking water in Goliad.

Attorney Jim Blackburn, who represents Goliad County in the hearing, asked him whether he thought the application was thoroughly done.

"In every investigation I make, I doubt everything," he said, explaining the level of scrutiny he puts on documents he reviews. "It doesn't matter if it's coming from a student or an elder statesman. If at any point I see something that doesn't make sense to me, I flag that."

Bennett said he is equally demanding of specificity with anyone he works with.

He was a witness called to the stand by UEC.

After his more than five hours of testimony, Monica Jacobs, representing UEC, leaned in toward him and patted his back.

Bob Underdown, the UEC executive who testified Monday, nodded approvingly several times while listening to Bennett's testimony.

The number of Goliad residents who attended the day's proceedings dwindled from earlier in the week.

The hearing is expected to wrap up in a Goliad courtroom next week.

John Reagor also took the stand Thursday for expert testimony on how mining would impact livestock and wildlife.

Reagor said spills at the site may release contaminants into the soil and cause runoff into agricultural water sources.

He said during pre-trial testimony that the mining site would not be a "significant source" of soil contamination.

Goliad cattle rancher Pat Calhoun said after the hearing that he worries what might happen should a spill occur.

"We in animal agriculture, we have an unspoken oath to provide a safe food supply," Calhoun said.

Cattle that ingest contaminants may experience kidney failure.

Calhoun said the possibility of genetic mutations through consuming radioactive materials was never addressed in testimony.

"Has there ever been research to determine what long-term effects there are?" he asked.

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