MAC: Mines and Communities

Roundup on Mining in USA

Published by MAC on 2005-11-09

Roundup on Mining in USA

As the Bush regime slashes funds for nuclear/uranium waste "containment" the Western Shoshone reassert their treaty-based rights to prevent construction of the Yucca mountain repository. Some small headway is also made in cleaning up a mercury mine, and environmental groups in West Virgina are planning to use federal legislation to halt moutaintop removal for coal.

Six Year Mercury Cleanup Completed in California's Tomales Bay

November 9, 2005

Environemtnal News Service (ENS)

SAN FRANCISCO, California - A cleanup and restoration project at the site of the biggest contributor of elemental mercury to Tomales Bay has been completed after six years.

Soil erosion and runoff from the abandoned Gambonini Mine, a 12 acre site on a steep hillside that drains to Salmon Creek, a tributary of Walker Creek on the north side of Tomales Bay, was sending as much as 180 pounds of mercury per year into the creek and bay as recently as 1999.

The remediation took the combined efforts of the Marin Conservation Corps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The multi-media cleanup effort initiated that year by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board and U.S. EPA has dramatically reduced the amount of mercury washing down from the mine site. A forthcoming technical report from the water board will detail the reduction of mercury in the creeks.

“We applaud the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Marin Conservation Corps for their success in restoring this site,” said Alexis Strauss, director of the U.S. EPA’s Water Division in the Pacific Southwest Region.

In addition to the grading and filling of eroded areas of the site, where mining ceased in 1970, low-tech, relatively inexpensive erosion control techniques and revegetation of the area with native plants played major roles in the successful remediation of the site.

Local participants in the work included the Marin Resource Conservation District, which contributed initial fieldwork and identified sediment sources on the site; and members of the Marin Conservation Corps, who provided much of the hand labor required for bioengineering, revegetation, and erosion control, all of which were critical components of the restoration project.

“This project provided corps members with the opportunity to learn about erosion control, mercury mining and environmental science concepts. It gave educational opportunities well beyond vocational training coming from extensive power tool use,” said Marilee Eckert, executive director of the Marin Conservation Corps.

The revegetation plan, which included soil remediation and development of a seed palette and local seed bank for the project as well as extensive planting, was developed by the state Department of Conservation and Department of Forestry. Local groups such as Circuit Rider Productions and the Marin Motorcycle Association contributed labor and expertise at various stages of the project.

“All of the agencies and organizations working on this project benefited from the collaboration,” says Dyan Whyte, senior geologist at the Water Board whose graduate research in the area quantified the mercury coming off the site and spurred the overall project.

“The results in terms of mercury reduction seem to be exceeding all of our expectations, Whyte says. This has been a very rewarding project to work on, and what we’ve learned should be useful in many other watersheds where former mercury mines are causing major problems for water quality.” Mercury has been known to have toxic effects on humans and wildlife. Mercury is a toxic metal and a natural element, commonly seen as a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid metal.

Mercury is a toxic persistent, bioaccumulative pollutant that affects the human nervous system. Methyl mercury is a chemical species that bioaccumulates in fish.

Fish consumption advisories are in effect for mercury in thousands of lakes and rivers.

Nuclear Waste Funding Slashed in 2006 Energy Budget

November 9, 2005

Envirnomental News Service (ENS)

WASHINGTON, DC - Plans for the nation's first permanent high-level waste repository appear to be faltering. Legislators agreed Monday to a $30.5 billion energy and water budget for Fiscal Year 2006 that cuts spending for storage of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada and requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assess risks of storing spent nuclear fuel at the power plants where it was used.

The Senate and House joint conference report provides a total of $450 million for Yucca Mountain, the nation's first permanent geologic high-level waste repository at a desert location 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on the grounds of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

Language is included directing the Department of Energy to begin a spent nuclear fuel recycling plan and to set up a competition to determine if there are communities or states that want to volunteer to be the site for a recycling reprocessing facility. The lawmakers allotted $50 million for these activities.

"No matter what side of Yucca you're on, the truth of the matter is Yucca is not on the schedule that even was predicted the last time. It's behind schedule," Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's energy and water subcommittee.

The $450 million budget is "just barely enough to keep it alive," said Domenici, a Yucca Mountain supporter. Senator Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of Yucca Mountain, said he was successful in slashing the budget for the Yucca Mountain project, planned to contain 77,000 tons of the country's most highly radioactive material - waste from Defense Department sites and spent nuclear fuel. The Department of Energy had previously said the agency would need $1.2 billion to keep the project on track.

"The Yucca Mountain project is fraught with inadequate science and insidious mismanagement," Reid said. "The project is never going to open and each year we grow closer to killing it." Last year Energy Department officials had hoped to quickly submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and open Yucca Mountain by 2010.

But a series of stumbling blocks have slowed the project, including the discovery of employee emails showing falsification of scientific data and a court ordered rewrite of radiation safety standards.

Opponents, including all Nevada's elected officials, argue that the site cannot safely contain the highly radioactive waste. They fear the transport of 77,000 tons of waste by road and rail from 139 sites around the country cannot be accomplished without a nuclear accident.

Currently, there is no date set for submission of the Yucca Mountain license application and no scheduled date for opening the repository.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada is about 100 miles northeast of the gambling resort city of Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy Nevada DEP)

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Monday that the administration is committed to both Yucca Mountain and spent nuclear fuel recycling.

In a speech at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington, Bodman said, "Solving the problem of how to store spent fuel will reap tremendous benefits for America's future and will help set the stage for an expansion of nuclear power."

"And permanent geological storage at Yucca Mountain offers the safest, most secure solution for dealing with this challenge," he said.

In other matters, the conference report drops funding for a proposed bunker-buster nuclear warhead at the request of the Energy Department. Opponents had argued that development of the weapon that could destroy deeply buried targets, such as bunkers drilled into solid rock, could add to nuclear proliferation. Instead the administration plans to pursue a conventional weapon that can penetrate underground targets.

For nuclear energy, the House-Senate conference report provides $557.57 million; $226 million is included for nuclear energy research and development of next generation nuclear power plants.

The conference report provides $3.63 billion for scientific research, which is $170 million above the request sent to Congress by President George W. Bush and $32 million above last year's level. Almost 10 percent of these funds restores funding for domestic fusion research at $290 million to harness nuclear energy that fuses atoms to create energy as the Sun does instead of splitting atoms to create energy as we do today.

Part of the $3.6 billion goes to fully fund the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This accelerator based neutron source is being built at Oak Ridge by the Department of Energy to provide the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world for scientific research and industrial development. At a total cost of $1.4 billion, construction began in 1999 and will be completed in 2006.

The budget approves $15 million to initiate a Nanotechnology Technology Transfer fund for developing the techniques of creating materials molecule by molecule or atom by atom. The conference report provides $1.83 billion for energy conservation and conservation, which is $81.5 million above the President’s request and $24 million above the Fiscal Year 2005 level. Funding of $157 million for hydrogen technology development and $184 million for advanced vehicle technologies are included.

The legislators agreed to spend $220 million to build the nation's first facility where weapons-grade plutonium would be processed into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in commercial power reactors. The $4 billion plant is to be built at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina by the consortium Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster.

The purpose of the MOX program is to ensure that plutonium produced for nuclear weapons and declared excess to national security is converted to forms that are resistant to proliferation.

The conference report supplies the $337 million budget President Bush requested for the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab in California. Senator Domenici had attempted to cut construction funding for the giant laser being built to simulate the explosion of a hydrogen bomb.

The lawmakers agreed to fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the $5.4 billion level, $1 billion above Bush's request. The $8 million requested by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, for the Corps to design a plan to bring south Louisiana up to Category Five hurricane protection.

For nuclear nonproliferation activities, the House and Senate conferees allotted $1.63 billion, which is $6 million under the President’s request but $138 million above last year'sfunding level. The funds will be used to increase research and development of nuclear detection technology, address emerging threats, and to further the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. This initiative repatriates all Russian and U.S. origin fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel and the replacement of it with low enriched uranium that cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

After the conference report is approved by the full House and Senate, it goes to the President's desk for his signature, which enacts the measure into law.

Western Shoshone Headed Back to Court to Challenge Yucca Mountain

November 10, 2005

Environmental News Service (ENS)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada - Based on an 1863 treaty, the Western Shoshone National Council is going back to court in another attempt to halt the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a lawyer for the tribe said Wednesday. Its first lawsuit was dismissed November 1. Located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain is sacred to the Western Shoshone people.

The tribe's case is based on the Ruby Valley Treaty, authorized by then Civil War Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who was later elected President. The initial lawsuit, filed in March, claims that agreed uses of Shoshone lands under the treaty do not include a disposal site for radioactive waste or a railroad to trasport waste to Yucca Mountain as the federal government plans to do.

Reno attorney Robert Hager, who represents the Western Shoshone tribes, said the Council received notice this week that U.S. District Judge Philip Pro sitting in Las Vegas had rejected the tribe's argument that it had standing to sue the government because the two parties were equal signatories to the Ruby Valley Treaty.

The treaty recognized lands in what is now Nevada, California, Utah and Idaho as Western Shoshone tribal land. But in 1946, an Indian Claims Commission decided that the tribe lost the land through "gradual encroachment."

Judge Pro also ruled that the Las Vegas federal court lacked jurisdiction, and the case was premature because the Yucca Mountain project has not been built. "The challenged actions in this case are not final because the decision-making process regarding whether Yucca Mountain will become a nuclear repository is not completed," the judge wrote.

"Additionally, [the Energy Department] has not completed its decision-making process regarding methods for transporting waste to Yucca Mountain, should it be licensed," he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which represented the federal government's position, declined to comment on the ruling.

Judge Pro's decision comes two days after Congress agreed to cut the 2006 budget for Yucca Mountain development from $577 million to $450 million. Other setbacks to Yucca Mountain this year include a court ordered revision of radiation safety standards and an investigation into falsification of data by government scientists working on the project.

The date for opening the Yucca Mountain repository to accept the 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and Defense Department waste now stored at nuclear power plants and on nuclear reservations has been pushed back from 2010 to 2012 or even later now that the Energy Department has postponed submitting its application for an operating license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Latest mining suit adds 'silt snake' angle

Charleston Gazette, West Virginia

November 6, 2005

In their latest federal court lawsuit, environmental group lawyers have launched a little-noticed new legal attack on mountaintop removal coal mining.

The suit, against the Army Corps of Engineers, alleges that federal officials do not properly evaluate the effects of valley fills on streams.

But in a new twist, environmental group lawyers are now also alleging that in-stream sediment ponds just downstream from fills are illegal.

They also argue that the discharge of pollution from valley fills into the stream segments between the fills and the sediment ponds - regulators call them "silt snakes" - is against the federal Clean Water Act.

"The valley fills will impact stream segments that will be used to transport polluted water from the toes of the valley fills to the outfalls of the sediment ponds constructed within the affected streams," the amended lawsuit says. "The polluted and untreated water discharged from the toes of the fills does not comply with the effluent limitations and standards for total suspended solids, settle-able solids and other pollutants."

In mountaintop removal, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves.

Leftover dirt and rock is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

Generally, coal operators allow the water that discharges from the toe of a valley fill to flow through a stream segment to a sediment pond that is built inside a stream bed farther downstream. In the sediment pond, solids settle to the bottom and, theoretically, clear water flows out into the stream.

State and federal regulators judge whether the mining operation complies with its water pollution limits by testing the water that flows out of the sediment ponds.

In the new lawsuit, environmental groups allege that the stream segments between the fills and the ponds are "waters of the United States" subject to federal pollution limits.

"Compliance with water quality standards is therefore required not only at the outlet of the sediment pond, but also upstream starting at the toe of the valley fills," the lawsuit says.

The allegations were added last week to a federal court lawsuit pending before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington.

Originally, the suit targeted the corps' approval of a permit for Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. to mine 12.5 million tons of coal from the hills around historic Blair Mountain.

Last week, lawyers for three West Virginia environmental groups amended their suit to also challenge a permit for another Massey subsidiary, Elk Run Coal Co., and its Black Castle Mine in Boone County.

The Aracoma project would bury nearly 3 miles of streams with waste rock and dirt. The Elk Run operation would bury about 2.5 miles of streams.

The corps has declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. Massey lawyers have not yet sought to intervene in the case to help defend their permits.

Already, environmental groups are waiting on an appeals court decision in a challenge of a ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin to block the corps from reviewing valley fill proposals through a streamlined "general permit" process.

In the new case, the groups argue that the corps was wrong to approve the Aracoma and Elk Run permits through more detailed "individual permit" reviews because those reviews did not include studies called Environmental Impact Statements.

The groups that filed the suit are the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch. They are represented by Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and by Stephen Roady and Jennifer Chavez of the Washington-based group Earthjustice.

"The corps failed to follow the law when they issued both of these permits," said Janet Keating, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

"The corps has repeatedly ignored evidence showing that mountaintop removal mining destroys the environment, harms the economy and degrades the lives of West Virginians," Keating said. "Our lawsuits send them a message to start complying with the law and stop blowing up our mountains."

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