MAC: Mines and Communities

Kleberg Residents Oppose New Uranium Mines

Published by MAC on 2005-07-31
Source: The Associated Press

Kleberg residents oppose new uranium mines

By Lynn Brezosky, The Associated Press

Sunday, July 31, 2005

RICARDO, Texas - The extended Garcia family has lived for five generations in a cluster of frame and trailer homes known, with some irony, as Garcia Hill because its compound sits maybe a foot higher than the surrounding scrub.

The Garcias have another local distinction: Their water is contaminated with uranium at levels so high the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has told them to stop drinking and see their doctors because of a high risk of cancer.

The government and the company that has been mining uranium in the area for the last 20 years told the Garcias the contamination is natural seepage from the vein of the radioactive material that runs near their well, the very uranium that attracted Lewisville-based Uranium Resources Inc. to Kleberg County in the first place.

The Garcias and other Kleberg County residents don't accept that explanation.

"That's weird that it's the only place and nobody else has it," Humberto Garcia said. "It just kind of raises questions. A quarter mile away we have relatives, and their well is OK."

The Garcias and other local residents see the family's plight as an emblem of the problems they say URI has dumped on them for decades.

URI well casings stick out of the ground on Garcia Hill. In the 1980s and early 1990s, URI pumps sucked uranium-filled water from deep underground for processing.

The activity ended when prices plummeted from more than $30 a pound to around $7. Claiming financial problems, the company left without cleaning up the area or restoring the water below.

"The promise was they would take all the uranium and leave the water clean," said Teo Saenz, president of STOP (South Texas Opposes Pollution). "They didn't."

STOP members, who number about a dozen, say an engineer mapped the underground for them in the mid-1990s and accurately predicted that contamination from the mine field would migrate first to the Garcia wells. They now fear poisoned water will seep toward the water supply of nearby Kingsville, population 26,000.

The county reached a settlement in December with URI to clean the water. Under the agreement, the company must clean up its first old mine before starting mining on the third, the second mine before completing the third, then the third mine before starting on the fourth, County Judge Pete De La Garza said. The company also must pay the county $20,000 for an expert to monitor their cleanup.

At a public hearing Monday, Garcia and other local residents will make their case against the company mining a new area, arguing that since the company failed to clean up its former operations it shouldn't be allowed to do more. The administrative judge will make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

STOP members hold little hope that they'll stop what will be URI's third and fourth mines. They said Kleberg County officials let them down by signing the settlement agreement.

"The settlement basically says they will make a 'good faith effort' to clean up the water," Walsh said. "It was a very big blow to us."

De La Garza said the agreement was the county's best route toward getting at least $5 million worth of cleanup done.

"We had two choices, the way I see it," he said. "The first choice was just to not allow them to mine, let them go away and leave our water dirty. The second I thought was more prudent - to get our water cleaned up. We're talking about millions of dollars."

Mark Pelizza, a URI vice president, said URI has operated prudently and that the residents can't see what cleanup they have already done. He said their operations have nothing to do with the Garcia Hill poisoning.

"I think the evidence is the uranium deposit underlies their houses, and it is established that it natural," Pelizza said.

The URI mines use a process known as in-situ mining, by which injection wells introduce mining solutions that mobilize uranium and other metals (including arsenic) so it can be pumped to the surface. Chemicals draw the uranium from the water.

Pelizza explained that a reverse osmosis system removes salts and other minerals used to isolate the uranium before the water is pumped back into the aquifer.

He said removing the well casings was the last step of the cleanup and could not be done until the state approved.

He said STOP's concerns about their operations affecting water in Kingsville are unfounded.

"That issue was reviewed thoroughly in the past and it's been determined that is not a problem," he said.

But Kleberg County residents who leased land to URI say they wished their families hadn't bought into URI's promises 25 years ago of easy royalties, regional prosperity, and better-than-before cleanup.

"It's been how many years now that we cannot farm the land?" said Elizabeth Cumberland, whose family leased land to URI in 1980. "I personally believe we have simply lost that land."

Cumberland's ancestors came on the first train to bring new settlers to the area in 1904, not long after ranch scion Robert Kleberg's well digger found water 700 feet down.

In protest of URI "tearing things up," the Garcias haven't cashed their annual URI lease check, usually around $1,100, in several years.

"We just started sending the checks back," Garcia said. "All these things kind of bother you a little bit. People trying to make a lot of money."

They were shocked to get a letter from the EPA in October 2004 informing them they should stop drinking their water and see their doctors. The letter told them they had an elevated risk for cancer.

Tom Poeton, an EPA environmental engineer, said the EPA isn't responsible for testing private water sources and sent the letter as a courtesy.

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