Wyoming Cleans Up After Uranium Boom Years

Jun 15, 2012

HOST: When the Cold War caused a uranium boom in the 1950s, soil and water in the state suffered contamination. Reclamation has improved the landscape, and regulation is catching up with the industry  but it’s not perfect yet. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Ore from Wyoming’s rich uranium deposits was refined and concentrated into yellowcake at mills in the state before being sent to processing and enrichment facilities elsewhere. The mills produced large amounts of sandy waste called tailings, which still contained uranium.

SAM WALKER: Uranium itself is not highly radioactive, but what it does, when it’s milled, is to release certain radioactive elements, such as radium, which is a daughter product of uranium, and radon, which is another step in the process of radioactive decay.

MARTINEZ: That’s Sam Walker, author and former historian for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Walker says the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission was aware that radon could be dangerous to humans – cancer was one example – so they did set some rules for managing mill tailings.

WALKER: As long as the mills were operating, the AEC required them to either cover the mill tailings piles or to keep them wet. And the idea of this was to keep the mill tailings, the sand like substance from blowing around where it might land in places where it wasn’t desirable.

MARTINEZ: But that Wyoming uranium boom didn’t last long, and many mills closed down by the 1960s, leaving behind open areas of dried tailings. The Susquehanna Western mill site was built by an AEC buying station near Riverton, in a flood plain between two rivers. Area residents used the sandy tailings in construction, kids played in it. The Department of Energy moved the tailings to a controlled area decades later, but even today, residents complain about contaminated drinking water and fear for their health.

DOUG BEAHM: It’s a lot different today than it was then.

MARTINEZ: That’s mining Engineer, geologist and consultant Doug Beahm. Beahm says environmental effects were not a primary concern at the time. America was positioning itself to become a world power.

BEAHM: You have to keep in mind that that was the Cold War. I grew up in that generation, you didn’t. But we did the drills of going into the bomb shelters. There was a different emphasis at the time.

MARTINEZ: Beahm says mining contractors didn’t just toss around tailings and forget about them. He worked at the Union Carbide mine in the Gas Hills in the 1970s, and he says tailings pools had dams to prevent acidic tailings from spilling into water drainages. However, he acknowledges that tailings ponds were meant to leak into the soil until the material became inert.

BEAHM: They looked at what was there, where the slow release over time, where the natural processes like radium being absorbed in clays was better than putting something in a bucket and waiting for the bucket to leak.

MARTINEZ: In 1973, Wyoming passed the Environmental Quality Act that required mines to restore mine land to its original condition or better. In 1978, Congress enacted the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, which charged the D-O-E with remediating abandoned mill sites. Companies are now expected to clean up after themselves, and line any new tailings ponds.

BEAHM: We are looking eastward toward the Pathfinder mill tailings.

MARTINEZ: What was once an open pit mine beside ponds containing 40 million tons of tailings. Now, it’s grassy open range land and some hills. The tailings have been capped with clay, earth and rock. It just looks like an un-vegetated rock formation.

BEAHM: That’s all mine reclamation. That’s not native.

MARTINEZ: There were several mining operations in this area, but as far as the eye could see the land was restored or on its way back. Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Richard Garrett examined a hill remediated with federal Abandoned Mine Land dollars.

RICHARD GARRETT: It’s hard not to be impressed with the expenditure of a lot of money. Frankly, I do recognize this as a mine site, or at least a reclamation site of some kind. But to me it seems like a good application of AML funds and the DEQ’s efforts.

MARTINEZ: As the state considers a batch of permit applications for new mines, Garrett wants the industry and its regulators to exercise caution and avoid wasting resources and causing damage.

Most of the mining projects seeking permits in Wyoming are in-situ leach mining operations. Instead of making an open pit mine or going underground to dig up ore, these efforts will seek to collect thin, low-grade uranium by essentially flushing it out of deep underground deposits. Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council says in-situ mining is not without problems.

SHANNON ANDERSON: Every single uranium mining operation that’s happened in this sin-situ process has left the water worse off than they found it.

MARTINEZ: In-situ mining uses up a lot of water, and then re-injects used water back in to the ground, even though it still contains dissolved uranium and other elements. Companies and researchers are trying to make the process safer and more efficient.

But Anderson says the uranium industry will have to work hard to earn back public trust and establish itself as a “clean energy” solution.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.