How the West's Energy Boom Could Threaten Drinking Water for 1 in 12 Americans
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Although few of those claims will actually be mined, mining has a track record of contamination that alarms water officials dependant on the river. The Metropolitan Water District points to a 16 million ton pile of radioactive waste near Moab as a warning of what can happen when mining isn’t carefully controlled.
The pile sits on the banks of the Colorado at the site of a mill that once processed uranium for nuclear warheads. The plant closed in 1984, but the Grand Canyon Trust estimates 110,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater still seep into the river there each day. The U.S. Department of Energy decided in 2000 to move the pile away from the river. But the planning was so complicated and the cost so high -- estimates top $1 billion -- that the first loads of waste won't be hauled off until next year.
The mill site in Moab, Utah (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
The industry says the Moab case is an outdated blight from the distant past.
"What gets my ire up is when we get compared to stuff that happened in the 60s. There is no argument from us now about being careful... with an eye to preserving the environment," said Peter Farmer, CEO of Denison Mines, a Canadian company that operates seven U.S. mines as well as the nation's only operating uranium mill in Blanding, Utah.
Denison recently spent more than $5 million to triple-line a waste pit and outfit it with leak detection sensors. It's cheaper to pay up front, Farmer says, than to clean up later.
Roger Haskins, a specialist in mining law at the BLM, agrees that concerns over mining are overblown. He says landmark environmental regulations in the 1970s prepared the industry for the 21st century. While it's still easy to stake a mining claim, projects must now undergo extensive environmental review before they can be turned into mines.
"Whatever happens out there is thoroughly manageable in today's regulatory environment," Haskins said.
Scientists say some degree of pollution is inevitable, because mining sometimes uses toxic chemicals like cyanide. It also exposes naturally toxic metals that would otherwise remain deep underground.
Drilling for uranium creates pathways where raw, radioactive material can migrate into underground aquifers that drain into the river. Surface water can seep into the drill holes and mine shafts, picking up traces of uranium and then percolating into underground water sources. The milling process itself creates six pounds of radioactive and toxic waste -- including ammonia, arsenic, lead and mercury -- for every ounce of uranium produced.
"There has to be some impact to downstream water. Whether or not we can measure -- that is the question," said David Naftz, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Salt Lake City who studies uranium mining.
Naftz has documented dangerous levels of uranium near waste dumps at more than 50 separate test sites in Utah. While much of the mining happens in high, dry places where contaminants don't easily seep into surface water, he says periodic storms can still wash them into the river.
"What we've done is kind of upset the geochemical equilibriums in these basins by taking these ores and exposing them to conditions on the surface," he said. "The question is, how long is it going to take to transport them down to water systems?"
Pollution problems with gold, copper and other mines also challenge the assertion that technology and better regulation have eliminated the environmental risks.
One study compared the EPA's environmental impact statements for 25 sites to what really happened after mining took place. Water at three quarters of the mines was found to be contaminated, even though the mines used technology and techniques that the EPA had said would keep the environment clean, according to the research done for the Earthworks by Jim Kuipers, an environmental engineer in Butte, Mont. and Ann Maest in Boulder, Colo.