Goliad uranium mining on trial at State Office of Administrative Hearings

Attorney Jim Blackburn holds up a map of the area UEC would like to mine.

Greg Harman

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AUSTIN ― Assuming the current economic recession or “Twilight Zone” Wall Street mysteriousnesses don't suck human society down into Mad Max levels of chaos and global dysfunction, uranium mining across South Texas will most likely pick up again.

Nuke plants are in vogue once more around the world, and taking nuclear technology to tourist destinations like Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Iran will require plenty of delicious yellow cake. But the outcome of a case being heard before the State Office of Administrative Hearings in Texas this week and next will help determine how carefully mining operators practice their craft here.

You may recall that last year the TCEQ agreed to let Uranium Energy Corp mine the radioactive mineral out of a Goliad County aquifer. Astute readers may even remember that Goliad County Commissioners and the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District were so unimpressed by UEC's preliminary activities there that they sued them in federal court alleging the initial exploratory well drilling by the company had contaminated the groundwater.

That complaint got kicked back to the state, and now the TCEQ and UEC are on the defense as Goliad residents try to convince a SOAH judge of the merits of their concerns.

Those concerns date back to 2007 when slimy orange sediment started showing up in area water wells. The Texas Railroad Commission cited UEC for failing to plug most of their hundreds of exploratory boreholes and leaving radioactive tailings in small heaps on top of the ground.

The Current wrote at the time that about 22 percent of the sites tested were found to be higher in radioactivity than natural background levels, though the RRC determined that given the remote location they were “not sufficient to pose a radiation exposure hazard.”

This week, UEC officials sought to save their project by trotting out the hired guns.

University of Texas geology professor Philip C. Bennett (right), who cleared about $1,500 from UEC for his five hours of exacting testimony, defended his earlier written determination that those unplugged wells could not have led to the contamination of groundwater.

When cross-examined by the plaintiff's attorney, noted Houston-based environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, Bennett admitted he was not present when the wells were drilled, did not personally inspect the wells, or participate in any sampling of the wells. Nor did he perform his own subsurface examination of the site. Instead, he said he “assumed” the reports he relied on from fellow UEC consultant Craig Holmes were a “professional product.”

Holmes testified on Tuesday was invested in UEC stock until he divested himself last week.

Bennett also said it wasn't possible that UEC pump tests run in Goliad could have stirred uranium into the water column, saying, “In my professional opinion, the gradient induced in a pump test is insufficient to mobilize `uranium particles` and I would stand by that." Though a couple minutes later he allowed: “I can't rule it out. All things are possible.”

Bennett, a regular consultant to energy companies in the state, had expressed concern to his attorney about Judge Richard Wilfong's decision to allow cameras in the courtroom. When questioned by Blackburn about it, he said he was worried that the “polarizing” and “controversial” nature of the hearing could inspire vandals to strike at UT. “I would be personally very embarrassed if there was vandalism for my part as a witness,” he said.

Bennett has a long history of consulting industries in cases where public health allegations have been made and was part of Chevron's legal team in Houston when residents there brought a class-action suit against the company for alleged water contamination.

UEC attorney Monica Jacobs (left), who had to apologize for her display of temper at least once on Thursday, refused to comment about the case during a break in proceedings.

After decades of uranium mining activity across South Texas, the industry largely rolled up in the 1980s after interest in nuclear power was chilled by numerous failed projects and the Three Mile Island near meltdown.

Though nuclear power has been rebounding somewhat, the availability of dismantled Russian warheads for nuclear fuel and current economic recession have kept the uranium market in check.

However, Goliad officials are concerned that if UEC is allowed to move forward with their project, others will follow. Testimony is expected to conclude in Austin this afternoon and resume in Goliad on Monday.

While there is some disagreement about whether underground "in-situ" uranium mining methods such as UEC has proposed for Goliad County offer an improvement over older open-trench mining methods, it is unknown how long uranium particles would remain loose in the water column after oxygenated water and underground pumps are used to stir them out of the sediment.


Interesting uranium formation factoid (added at 4:10pm): Since January 1, 2008, the Texas Railroad Commission has approved 10 new uranium exploration permits and renewed 32 others.


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