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Mining Aquifers for Uranium Could "Dissolve" NM Drinking Water Safety

August 9, 2007

A plan to make it easier to set up uranium mines may be hard to swallow in New Mexico. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is holding a public meeting in Albuquerque today, and the topic is a process that involves injecting chemicals into an aquifer to strip uranium from surrounding rock and dissolve it in the water, which is then pumped to the surface. Eric Jantz with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center says the technique, called in situ leach mining or ISL, has a terrible track record of contaminating groundwater.

"It's hard to contain, and it can never be cleaned up. In fact, no commercial-scale ISL operation in the U.S. has ever cleaned up an aquifer that's been mined to the condition that the aquifer was in before mining occurred."

Jantz notes an ISL pilot project near Crownpoint in the 1980s contaminated a portion of an aquifer, and the groundwater was never restored to drinkable quality.

The NRC wants to "streamline" the environmental research and the "impact statement" required to set up aquifer uranium mines. That approach worries Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center.

"So we're concerned that this impact statement is going to be used as a substitute for site-specific work because that site-specific work is essential to really understanding an individual proposal and its potential impacts."

NRC briefings have indicated that site-specific reviews will take place. Robinson believes there should be more opportunities for public input, and today's meeting is one of only two currently scheduled for the entire Western U.S.

Eric Mack/Craig Eicher, Public News Service - NM