The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is working to make it easier for uranium mining companies to begin new projects. Currently, an environmental evaluation is required at each proposed site for uranium mining. However, in order to speed up the process of issuing permits, the NRC has proposed to lump them all in a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (Generic EIS) for in situ leach uranium mining through out the country. If adopted, the Generic EIS will remove the current environmental inquiries required for each specific proposed mining site and restrict public comment on future uranium mining licenses.
In situ leach (ISL) mining allows for the injection of chemical liquids into the aquifer in order to destabilize radioactive and other toxic minerals. The solution of uranium-rich groundwater is then pumped to the surface, where the mining company removes as much uranium and other heavy metals as is financially feasible. The remaining solution is re-injected into the aquifer, where it can contaminate ground water. In the more than 30 years that companies have been conducting ISL mining, no company has ever been able to reclaim water to pre-mining conditions. In fact, the only way that mines have ever been able to meet permit requirements is for those requirements to be relaxed by regulators, as has happened in Texas and Wyoming.
The proposed EIS will address “generic” issues associated with ISL mining nationwide in one single review. Such issues could include groundwater restoration, hydrology, waste management and environmental justice. This process has extraordinary implications for New Mexico and the West because of the many proposed sites for uranium mining. At a minimum, the towns of Gallup, Grants, Crownpoint, Church Rock and surrounding communities will be impacted in New Mexico. In addition, ISL mining is proposed for Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Arizona.
Many are concerned, including the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, because the proposed Generic EIS would limit the ability of the impacted communities to participate in the decision making process. All opportunities for public comment will be for this one document, rather than for each specific site. Already, the NRC has begun limiting the involvement of potentially impacted communities by scheduling only two public comment hearings, one in Albuquerque and one in Wyoming, despite the numerous communities that will be impacted by this process.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said, “There is nothing generic about the concerns that many New Mexicans have with proposals to reopen or start new uranium mining and milling operations in their communities. I believe that this proposal will negatively impact the ability of impacted communities to participate in the NRC licensing process for individual facilities.”
The public has an opportunity to comment on the NRC proposal to prepare a Generic EIS. A sample letter is available on the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s website at nmenvironlaw.org. Comments will be accepted until September 4th.