Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New Mexico: Uranium

Grants Uranium Mine Museum, Grants, New Mexico

In Grants, New Mexico, is a fine little museum about the history of uranium mining in New Mexico. Sadly, the museum doesn't share the full story of uranium mines in New Mexico, and I think it should. (It does have a little section on the benefits of coal, sponsored by a coal interest.

The uranium mining enterprises left a wretched legacy of human and environmental damage, still felt today. From my earlier post on this subject:

The New York Times did a story in March 2012 on abandoned uranium mines in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah: Uranium Mines Dots Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous. Companies that abandoned mines include Chevron and General Electric, among others. I saw no mention in the museum, either, of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides some monetary compensation to individuals exposed to radiation due to atomic testing and uranium mining.   

Grants Uranium Mine Museum, Grants, New Mexico


At the Gathering of Nations 2013, there was an area for nonprofit organizations to share their info. The goal of one was to share the informaton about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and how folks can get tested at no cost to see if they have radiation exposure.

Renewed interest in uranium mining

Yesterday, I saw this: Nation's Biggest Uranium Mine Planned in New Mexico, published in Grist.

Another site has a page on uranium mining in New Mexico. It has a link to an economic report that came to different conclusions than the author of the Grist article: Perhaps the Grist author simply assumed New Mexico would reap significant economic benefits from a uranium mining renaissance, but the economics professor who wrote his 2008 analysis, concluded that " ... taxpayers will potentially lose value due to the environmental impact of mining."

Will the future be different than the past? 

A recent news release from a company that has uranium and gold interests in the Southwest: 
Wolfpack's mandate is to advance low cost [emphasis mine] heap leach and high grade underground gold projects towards production in the western United States while maintaining an important asset base in uranium.  The Company owns a significant portfolio of gold properties located in Nevada and surrounding states and has options to acquire certain properties, including the Castle Black Rock and Adelaide Properties located in Nevada.  .....

The Company is committed to maximizing shareholder value [emphasis mine] and is well positioned with cash and marketable securities of approximately $8.2 million and a low annual expenditure rate.  In addition, the Company owns 115,000+ acres (46,400 ha) of private mineral rights, with an indicated resource of 26.6 MM pounds U3O8 at an average grade of 0.105% e U3O8 and an inferred resource of 6.1 MM pounds U3O8 at an average grand of 0.110 e U3O8 (Beahm, 2012).  The mining properties are located in New Mexico's Crownpoint Uranium District, a portion of which are under NRC license, and benefit from an increasingly progressive New Mexico regulatory and political environment.[emphasis added]

Credit: Stroh su Gold

 Wolfpack. Low cost production. Maximize shareholder value. ... How confident do I feel in such a company's "commitment" or "mandate" to ensure a safe work environment and responsible environmental husbandry during and following mining?

Look, I get that business is about maximizing profit while minimizing costs. No problems there. But when you're talking about an industry fraught with human and environmental tragedy - you don't even offer a token gesture about social responsibility? 

Executive board members of Wolfpack were principals in Gold Predator Corp. and Silver Predator Corp.

Seriously. Wolfpack? Predator? What's the code name for New Mexico - Little Red Riding Hood?

(For the record: Both Wolfpack and Predator might be positive role models for corporate citizenship. I have no concrete information that points for or against.)     

So what's my point?

Given the dismal consequences of past uranium mining operations, what are the tangible assurances in place to prevent new problems?

Executive summary of a 2012 GAO report

Entire report accessible here.

(I added the underlining.)

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and the Department of Energy (DOE) are the key agencies that oversee uranium exploration and extraction on federal land, but GAO identified three areas where their oversight processes differ. First, these agencies have different processes for notification of uranium exploration or extraction activities on federal land. Second, the agencies require operators to have in place financial assurances to cover the full estimated cost of reclaiming a uranium operation, but they differ in who estimates the value of the financial assurance and the frequency of their reviews of the assurances. Third, under existing authorities, DOE can collect royalties or rents for uranium extraction, but BLM and the Forest Service cannot. DOE has collected about $64 million in rents and royalties from its leasing program since the 1940s.

As of January 2012, a total of 221 uranium operations were on federally managed land, but only 7 were actively extracting uranium and all of these were on BLM land. An additional 29 uranium operations were awaiting federal approval. Of the 202 operations on BLM land, the majority were engaged in either reclamation or exploration activities, according to BLM field officials. In addition, 3 uranium operations were on Forest Service land, and 16 operations were on lease tracts that DOE manages, none of which were actively extracting uranium.

As of January 2012, BLM, the Forest Service, and DOE reported having $249.1 million in financial assurances, and these assurances were generally adequate to cover the estimated reclamation costs for uranium operations on federal land. Nearly all of these assurances ($247.6 million) were for authorized uranium operations on BLM-managed land, with the remaining $1.5 million for authorized operations on Forest Service land and for DOE’s lease tracts. BLM and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is responsible for overseeing some aspects of uranium operations on federal land, do not coordinate efforts to establish and review financial assurances for in situ recovery operations, which use a series of wells to extract uranium. Such operations account for a large percentage of the total financial assurances held by the agencies.

Federal agencies do not have reliable data on the number and location of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land or a definitive cost for their cleanup. There are likely thousands of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land, but GAO identified significant limitations in agencies’ data that make their databases generally unreliable. For example, these databases do not have complete data and do not use a consistent definition of an abandoned mine site. Agencies do not know how many sites will need cleanup, and they do not have information on the total cost to clean up these sites. Based on agencies’ experiences with cleanup at some sites, cleanup costs could vary significantly from thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on site-specific conditions and the amount and type of work required at each site.

Why GAO Did This Study

From 2005 through 2007, uranium prices increased from about $20 a pound to over $140 a pound, leading to renewed interest in uranium mining on federal land. This interest has raised concerns about the potential impacts that more uranium operations could have on the environment. GAO was asked to (1) compare key agencies’ oversight of uranium exploration and extraction operations on federal land, (2) determine the number and status of uranium operations on federal land, (3) identify the coverage and amounts of financial assurances for reclaiming current uranium operations on federal land, and (4) examine what is known about the number and location of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land and their potential cleanup costs. GAO reviewed agency reports and regulations, surveyed relevant agency field staff on the status of these operations, and examined federal data on uranium operations, financial assurances, and abandoned uranium mine sites.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that federal agencies better coordinate their efforts when establishing financial assurances and develop a consistent definition for abandoned mine sites. The Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Energy, along with NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concurred with these recommendations. In addition, Interior and EPA provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

In addition to the GAO recommendations

Maybe the executives of said enterprises must sign documents that make them personally accountable for financial and safety management.  Maybe the companies have got to take out insurance policies to cover mismanagement or mishaps.

History has shown that it's just too easy for companies and principals to disappear after making a mess.

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