Is a Mine a Terrible Thing to Waste?

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When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, my parents would often take long, looping Sunday drives on the beat-up county roads near Yorktown, Goliad, Cuero, Kenedy – the little towns in the farm and ranch country of that part of Texas.

For a restless kid in the backseat, it wasn’t exactly Disney Land but some of the sights are still vivid in my mind.

In particular, I remember asking my dad about a strange earthen feature we’d frequently pass near Kenedy, a two- or three-story mound of earth flattened on top like a plateau. It was huge and totally anomalous on the mostly flat landscape.

My dad told me it was a uranium mine. I had no idea what that was but it sounded exotic … and perhaps a bit dangerous. I haven’t thought much about it since but the memories came leaping back upon reading Greg Harman’s new article on the resurgence of uranium mining in South Texas.

His story for the San Antonio Current opens:

A string of lakes across Karnes County sparkle as blue as any found in the resort towns of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Each is graced with the gentle slope of a nearby hill, where wildlife forages on its way to and from the waterline.

These former mine sites were blasted open during the uranium boom that swept South Texas in the 1950s and ’60s, when the U.S. military was racing to keep pace with the growing Soviet atomic-bomb program and the newborn Atomic Energy Commission was struggling to develop beneficial uses for the monstrously destructive power we had tapped.

Today, 17 of Texas’ earliest open-pit mines remain abandoned on private property. Land owners like to fish these man-made water features.

More than a few have learned to water-ski here, despite the fact that the Texas Railroad Commission has found the sites to be emitting abnormally high levels of cancer-causing radiation.

In the story, Harman connects the dots between San Antonio’s efforts to expand nuclear power, the resurgence of uranium mining across South Texas (Karnes County, Goliad, Kingsville and elsewhere) and the once and future impacts to people’s health and the environment, especially groundwater.

The mining of uranium is no longer a crude strip-mining effort. The industry now does it “in-situ” by dissolving the uranium into the groundwater with a solution and then pumping the mix to the surface where the native water is separated from the valuable uranium.

Once treated, the water is returned to the aquifer. (Note: It’s much more complicated than this. For the deets, go here.)

While the industry touts the process as “environmentally safe,” Harman discusses in detail some of the limitations and risks inherent to in-situ mining. Goliad County is the epicenter of the fight between locals concerned about groundwater contamination and the uranium extractors.

Up the road in Goliad County, Uranium Enrichment Corp is working hard to open an in-situ operation.

The groundwater district and the county government charge that the company has already fouled the local aquifer by punching nearly 100 exploratory holes in the subsurface water sands.

Instead of closing these holes within 48 hours as state law demands, many of them were left open to the elements for several weeks. With air and rainwater shooting down the shafts, Groundwater District president Dohman says the uranium reacted to the oxygen and began to dissolve out of the water sands, polluting the Evangeline Aquifer.

The whole article is worth a read.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.