Uranium and Water

Uranium mining and milling produces massive amounts of toxic waste. Virtually all uranium mining in the U.S. has occurred in sparsely populated regions of Nevada and New Mexico, where rainfall is often below 15 inches per year. Still, according to the EPA, tailings have contaminated the groundwater at almost all U.S. mill sites. In a rainy state, like Virginia, the toxic runoff would pose an unprecedented danger. According to the EPA,

Water is perhaps the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and related …[radioactive materials] in the environment from mines and mine wastes….Uranium is very soluble in acidic and alkaline waters and can be transported easily from a mine site.

Uranium’s radioactive components, particularly radium and radon, are highly soluble in water, which would be a dangerous experiment for a state like Virginia with over 42 inches of rain per year.

Fans of uranium mining acknowledge that uranium mining has had “shameful legacy in terms of human and environmental devastation.” As noted by the Natural Resources Defense Council in recent comments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

The history of uranium recovery and management in the United States (and, indeed around the globe) is replete with environmental damage, serious worker safety and health abuses, and harm to entire communities….Additionally, most of the environmentally damaged sites have not received adequate cleanup of past harms, and for what little cleanup has been done, most of the cost has been borne by taxpayers rather than the companies and associated beneficiaries of the uranium mined.

In “Exposure Pathway and Health Effects Associated with Chemical and Radiological Toxicity of Natural Uranium: A Review,” (2005) Dr. Doug Brugge and others at the Tufts University School of Medicine noted:

Currently, the EPA lists 23 National Priorities List (NPL) sites where uranium is a contaminant of concern …. Uranium, however, is explicitly excluded from the scoring system that is used to place sites on the NPL precluding most abandoned mines from being listed.

For more about environmental and human health impacts from different types of mining, even after studies promised minimal or no impact, go here.

Health Impacts

Numerous health problems are associated with uranium and its associated decay products. These include cancer from radon, birth defects and kidney problems from uranium, bone cancer and leukemia from radium, and lung and skin cancer from arsenic.

According to the EPA website

There are four principal ways (or exposure pathways) that the public can be exposed to the hazards from this waste.”

“The first is the diffusion of radon gas directly into indoor air if tailings are misused as a construction material or for backfill around buildings. When people breathe air containing radon, it increases their risk of developing lung cancer.”

Second, radon gas can diffuse from the piles into the atmosphere where it can be inhaled and small particles can be blown from the piles where they can be inhaled or ingested.”

“Third, many of the radioactive decay products in tailings produce gamma radiation, which poses a health hazard to people in the immediate vicinity of tailings.”

“Finally, the dispersal of tailings by wind or water, or by leaching, can carry radioactive and other toxic materials to surface or ground water that may be used for drinking water.”

In 2007, the Colorado Medical Society resolved that it “opposes the practice of in-situ and open pit mining of uranium due to the adverse health impact of radioactively contaminated water on our agriculture, livestock and civilian population.” In his 2007 testimony before Congress, Dr. Brugge described “uranium ore … [as] a toxic brew of numerous nasty hazardous materials.”

According to the EPA’s TENORM Report, “Water is perhaps the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and related [radioactive materials] in the environment from mines and mine wastes…Uranium is very soluble in acidic and alkaline waters and can be transported easily from a mine site.” This is bad. No state in which rainfall exceeds evaporation has ever allowed uranium mining within its borders. If Virginia allows uranium mining, it would be the first.

Contaminated Water

Water is used (and contaminated) in the milling process. In addition, rain falling on waste products from the mining and milling processes picks up radioactive and other toxic elements which can end up and remain in surface and ground waters for thousands of years. In the 1980s, Marline Uranium estimated that the waste pile from their proposed Virginia operation would cover 930 acres, 100 feet deep.

Mining and milling the proposed Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County would generate hundreds of acres of radioactive waste and contaminate millions of gallons of water. To mine uranium safely, hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated and radioactive water will have to be prevented from running into Virginia streams or leaching into the ground water. Virginia’s most populous communities lie downstream of the uranium leases filed in the 1980s.

Map of Drinking Water Resources downstream of 1980s N. Piedmont Leases.

Map of Drinking Water Resources downstream of Coles Hill.

Virginia’s Acute Rainfall Events

Not only does the Virginia Piedmont have greater annual rainfall than other uranium mining communities, it also has greater acute rainfall events. Two of the top five most intense 12-hour storms in the United States occurred in the Virginia Piedmont.

Map of 12-hour storm events.

Twenty-seven inches of rain fell on Nelson County in 1969. Twenty-nine inches fell in Madison County in 1995. Significant flooding also happened in Pittsylvania County in 1996 during Hurricane Fran.

View home video footage & map of the flooding event.

As noted by Elizabeth Haskell in her dissent to the recommendation of the Uranium Subcommittee/Uranium Administrative Group: “In Virginia’s wet climate where water is discharged from the site and filters through tailings, the transmittal of radiation to people through streams and the groundwater is a major issue.”

Conclusion

This experiment should not be conducted on Virginia. Virginia should take no action to initiate or sanction a study of uranium mining until the proponents of mining provide reviewable information demonstrating that mining and milling have been undertaken in five places with climate, geology, and population density similar to Virginia and in such a manner as to safeguard the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being of citizens of those communities.

Uranium Mining Maps
Here are some maps related to uranium mining in Virginia, courtesy of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Counties with Former Uranium Mining Leases in the Virginia Piedmont
Map showing counties with former uranium mining leases located in Virginia’s Piedmont.
Drinking Water Sources Downstream from Proposed Coles Hill Uranium Mining Site
Map showing drink water sources located downstream from the proposed Coles Hill Uranium Mining site.
Former Uranium Mining Leases in Pittsylvania County, Virginia
Map showing former uranium mining leases in Pittsylvania County, VA.
Properties with Former Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies – Southside Region
Major water supplies in Southside are located downstream from properties with former uranium mining leases. There are major safety concerns over mining uranium in wet climates such as Virginia’s, which could have disastrous effects on water supplies.
Properties with Former 1980s Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies – Piedmont region
Major water supplies in the Piedmont are located downstream from properties with former uranium mining leases. There are major safety concerns over mining uranium in wet climates such as Virginia’s, which could have disastrous effects on water supplies.
Properties with Former 1980s Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies-Impact on Frederickburg
Map showing former uranium mining leases and downstream water supplies in Virginia near Fredericksburg.
Proposed 930-acre uranium tailings storage View 12 and 3
Maps showing a proposed 930-acre uranium tailings storage, overlayed on a map of downtown Richmond, Virginia.
Potential Uranium in Virginia
A map showing potential uranium located in Virginia.
Water Supplies Potentially Impacted by Uranium Mining
View water supplies in the Piedmont and Southside regions of Virginia that would be potentially impacted by uranium mining. This map also includes properties with former uranium mining leases.

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